BIDLACK | ‘Our nation is strong enough to weather vile speech’

Author: Hal Bidlack - July 31, 2018 - Updated: July 28, 2018

Hal Bidlack
Hal Bidlack

George Washington didn’t use the internet. In the era the Constitution was written, information and opinions could travel no faster than a galloping horse or a ship at sea. And in that slower time, a remarkable group of intellectuals crafted what has become the longest lasting written constitution in world history. Pretty impressive, to be sure, but again, they didn’t have the internet.

Why do I mention the obvious? Because I’m trying to approach a very complex and troublesome issue carefully, in hopes of offending as few readers as possible before I get to the end. I’m going to make some statements that could, if taken out of context, sound pretty bad. But as we know, context is everything, especially when we do use the internet.

Recently Facebook has come under fire for several things, including two especially tricky ones: fake accounts and horrible speech. We know from multiple congressional investigations (from committees chaired by Republicans) that the Russian government did, in fact, meddle in our 2016 election. And while there is currently no evidence that they managed to change vote totals within voting machines, there seems little doubt that their fake news (see? Those words can be used correctly) must have influenced some voters. How many decided to vote for the personal choice of Mr. Putin on the basis of fake news, we can’t know, but it can’t have been zero.

This Facebook effort was made up, in part, by creating a number of fake accounts that pretended to be US-based people complaining about Hillary and talking up Mr. Trump. I think we can all agree that making up fake people is not a good thing, and Facebook should work hard to get rid of them.

But the other question, horrible speech, is much more vexing. Among other things, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg ran into a storm of criticism when he was thought by some to be defending Holocaust deniers when he seemed to suggest that Facebook wouldn’t delete the posts and ban the posters of those who spew such vile and horrible ideas.

I want to tread very carefully here, because of the dangers of the internet where ideas and thoughts are parsed and blurred. Holocaust deniers are idiots and fools and their message is usually just thinly-veiled bigotry pretending to be history. That said, we limit such people’s free speech at our own peril.

One of the greatest justices in the history of the Supreme Court was Hugo Black. I fancy myself, mostly, as what has become known as a “Hugo Black absolutist.” Justice Black argued that all speech was protected from federal meddling. For example, during an era when the court was often called upon to rule on the alleged educational value of pornographic movies, Black alone among the then-Justices declined to ever view a minute of any film – he argued that it didn’t matter what was in the film, it was protected. There are huge legal arguments around this question, and such things as child pornography, military secrets, and speech that presents a “clear and present danger” complicate the issue for many, but not for Justice Black.

He argued, and I agree, that the best cure for evil or “bad” speech is not suppression, but rather more speech to counter the garbage ideas put forth by such folks as Holocaust deniers and others. The moment the government decides what speech is ok and what speech is too dangerous, our nation begins a perilous slide down the most dangerous of slippery slopes. Perhaps we are already sliding?

It’s very easy to support free speech when the speech you are hearing is something you support. The real challenge, of course, comes in whether you are willing to defend speech you find so vile, so monstrous, that it turns your stomach.

Thus, I argue that Mr. Zuckerberg’s response should not be to decide what type of speech – hateful or otherwise – is acceptable, but rather to point out and highlight such stupidity and urge his readers to respond with even more free speech. I’m not the first to make the analogy of freedom dying in darkness, but it is an apt metaphor.

Back when I was teaching the Constitution to cadets at the Air Force Academy, I gave voice to a phrase I’d heard that really does sum up the critical idea: the best reason not to burn the flag is because you can if you want to. Our nation is strong enough to weather vile speech. The danger to ourselves and our posterity would come from those who would limit speech, rather than celebrate it.

There, have I ticked everyone off? Hope not. But if I have,  you have the right to speak out too.

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.