New Scientist calls for curbs on “free speech” in America

September 19, 2022 • 9:30 am

One would think from the tenor of this piece in New Scientist that author Annalee Newitz was not an American and didn’t understand how free speech works in the U.S. But she is an American—born in California—and writes science fiction as well as science and tech journalism, including a regular column in New Scientist.  Now this isn’t my favorite publication—not since its famous and misguided “Darwin Was Wrong” cover and article—and this comment, which has nothing to do with science, is equally misguided. (See here and here on that execrable cover.)

You can read it for free, though you may have to sign up with your email and a password. Click on the screenshot:

Newitz does understand one thing: that the “freedom of speech” guaranteed by the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights guarantees only that the government can neither censor nor compel speech. This applies to all arms of the government, including public schools and universities—but not to corporations or private groups.  Further, that speech isn’t “free” in the sense of being “unlimited”: the courts have, over the years, carved out exceptions in which the government can censor speech. These include (you should know these by now), false advertising, defamation, speech that is likely to and intended to instigate immediate violence, speech that creates harassment in the workplace, child pornography, threats, and so on.

Nevertheless, I and many others favor extending the First-Amendment type of speech (excepting the already-mentioned exceptions) to nearly all venues, including social media.  The rationale for this was, of course, most famously set out in Chapter 2 John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, an essay that you should read (it’s free here).  Mill’s most famous reason was the notion that from the clash of competing ideas would emerge the truth, and that free speech was the only principle that could offer that promise. A quote:

It still remains to speak of one of the principal causes which make diversity of opinion advantageous, and will continue to do so until mankind shall have entered a stage of intellectual advancement which at present seems at an incalculable distance. We have hitherto considered only two possibilities: that the received opinion may be false, and some other opinion, consequently, true; or that, the received opinion being true, a conflict with the opposite error is essential to a clear apprehension and deep feeling of its truth. But there is a commoner case than either of these; when the conflicting doctrines, instead of being one true and the other false, share the truth between them; and the nonconforming opinion is needed to supply the remainder of the truth, of which the received doctrine embodies only a part.

Of course free speech doesn’t always lead to the truth, but show me a better system! It surely works in science, where the clash of competing ideas, without much restriction (you can’t call other scientists names in published papers), has led to the understanding of the Universe called “scientific truth”. That truth is not absolute, of course, but what we call the “scientific method” is the best way to approach it.

But there are other reasons for free speech.  It outs those who have odious ideas; enables you, even if you disagree, to sharpen your own arguments and examine your views; confers a certain freedom of thought as well, and so on. That is why, I think, social media should observe as far as it can the First Amendment’s freeoms and restrictions.  So should all universities, whose goal is (supposedly) seeking and promulgating the truth. That’s why 87 American colleges and universities, many of them private, have signed on to the Chicago Principles of Free Expression, our own speech “code” that is basically the First Amendment promulgated t a private university.

But I digress. What Newitz argues for in her piece is restrictions on the kind of speech can cause “chaos”, offense, and harm to society. American free speech is, she argues, the very antithesis of a way to arrive at the truth.

She begins by mocking Elon Musk’s attempt to buy Twitter on the grounds that it would promote free speech. Now I don’t know if this was Musk’s real reason, and have no dog in the fight about his taking over the company, which in the end probably won’t happen. But she argues that the kind of free speech Musk calls for is a “myth”. It isn’t: it’s just that Newitz doesn’t like the consequences. And so she argues for “controlled” free speech (emphasis at the end of her quote below is mine):

When Musk and other Silicon Valley media entrepreneurs talk about free speech, then, they aren’t talking about the reality of US laws. They are talking about a myth – the myth that everyone in the US is a rugged individual, dependent on no one, and we should be allowed to say whatever we want to whomever we want.

Politicians should be allowed to say that fair elections were “rigged”. Racists should be allowed to blame Jewish people for chemtrails. If people in the US say something bad or hurtful, the myth goes, the solution is more speech, not moderation in what we say.

Ironically, this mythical form of “free speech” actually functions as a new form of social control. As media researcher and journalist Peter Pomerantsev points out in his book This Is Not Propaganda, the cold war generation fought for unfettered expression as a solution to censorship. More information was supposed to mean more freedom.

But then, in the 21st century, a new crop of anti-democratic politicians figured out that more information can actually work as a form of “mass persuasion run amok” on social media. Speech begets more speech, until the whole internet is an infinite doomscroll.

Instead of being set free, our minds are being contained by a flood of meaninglessly cruel poop emojis.

Ordinary citizens trying to understand the world on social media are overwhelmed with negative messages. We witness vicious, polarised debates and we watch helplessly as mobs of trolls descend on anyone who is deemed unsavoury.

When free speech metastasises into chaos speech, we no longer know what is true or false. We don’t trust each other. And productive debates in the public sphere become impossible.

It turns out that information overload is just as toxic to democracy as censorship is. We need to chuck out the US myth that bad speech can be “cured” with more speech. Without moderation, ground rules for debate and thoughtful regulation in our digital public squares, it is impossible for us to reach agreement on anything.

There is a vast and pleasant country between total censorship and total information chaos, and that is where I hope to live one day. I’ll save you a seat.

Here she argues that First-Amendment style speech (and not just on social media) can cause chaos, harm, racism, “social control”, cruelty and “offense”. What she want is in bold above— moderators, also known as censors.

And there, of course, is the rub.  Newitz wants “moderation”, but who is to be the moderator? (This trenchant question is the subject of Hitchens’s famous debate argument for free speech.) Note that Newitz doesn’t single out social media, but indicts “anti-democratic politicians” (i.e., Trump and his like), and non-politicians who spread “negative messages”, as well as “trolls.”

And as for “free speech” being a “new form of social control”, I have no idea what she’s talking about. Control by Twitter? But think of all the people, previously silent, who are now speaking up. Control, my tuchas! People previously without a voice in America now have one—and it’s largely the result of social media. I don’t agree with a lot of what they say, of course, but that’s just the point.

So I ask this obvious question to Ms. Newitz:

“Who, do you propose, should censor the speech of “anti-democratic politicians,” trolls, promoters of offense and hate, confusing messages (presumably false information about Covid and the like), and others. Do you nominate yourself? Or would you prefer a Department of Censorship.  And how will you silence the likes of Trump?”

I’m looking forward to Newitz, in a future column, describing how she would arrange things to turn America into the “vast and pleasant country” she craves.  How, exactly, will she arrange the suppression of speech that she finds cruel, vicious, chaotic, and trollish?

Free speech isn’t a myth, but if censorious folk like Newitz get their way, it will become one.


h/t: Mark

42 thoughts on “New Scientist calls for curbs on “free speech” in America

  1. Free speech is not a myth, it’s a value. I can’t help but think that people who are looking to restrict speech are trying to silence opponents in a debate the censors feel they are losing.

    1. Oh — you mean like what all the Repubs are doing now. Can’t win an argument so they restrict what teachers can teach and what children can learn. If they can’t do that, they just outshout and lie and shout some more.

      1. I gather that the deplatforming going on at universities is no less on your mind. (So far as I know, trigger warnings and safe spaces do not yet obtain at K-5 schools, though not a little coloring occurs.)

  2. There was never a “myth” that more free speech can always cure problems with free speech. It has been long recognized that sometimes libel or negligence law is needed, or that the government must step in to protect public health. The problem today is not free speech; it’s “free libel”, “free negligence”. [Imagine if a newspaper ran an article “Hey kids, it’s great fun to choke yourself until you pass out!”] Section 230 must go.

  3. To anyone who proposes that speech be censored in such a fashion, or moderated, I say, “You go first. You submit your speech to be moderated by someone else…but you don’t get to choose who the moderators are. Oh, and by the way, I find your argument against free speech to be threatening and dangerous, so maybe YOU should be the one not allowed to speak.”

    People who propose such curtailments and controls need to study history and learn how often such proposers are hoist by their own petards (also so to speak). But really, that’s beside the point, and Mill’s arguments are utterly convincing.

    Or, as Hitch said, “My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, any time. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line, and kiss my ass.”

    1. Defenders of free speech explicitly point out that this involves protecting the speech of those you disagree with. Detractors of free speech always explicitly say they would ban the speech of those they disagree with. Looking at it that way makes the choice rather simple, doesn’t it?

  4. It’s weird — given the recent precedent of Trump appointing Supreme Court justices — that the woke can’t see the problem with giving government the power to appoint a panel of censors.

  5. I don’t understand what Newitz thinks is the current state of things. There is already lots of censorship by social media companies of content on their “digital public squares”.

  6. ” How, exactly, will she arrange the suppression of speech that she finds cruel, vicious, chaotic, and trollish?” Surely the answer to this question is plain as day. All speech will be moderated/censored by the DEI Committee and the Diversity Office. The latter have, by definition, already achieved what Mill termed the “stage of intellectual advancement which at present seems at an incalculable distance”. QED.

  7. Ms. Newitz’s calling for “moderation” probably has certain lawyers salivating at the thoughts of counter-suits galore. tRUMPian tactics of investigating investigators and counter-counter suing and “I’m sure there’s good people on both sides but..” “Remember folk$…we don’t get paid until you do.”

  8. There is a free speech myth both in America and outside. That is that anyone really values it or views it as a societal positive. Except for extreme civil libertarians like Nat Hentof or Ira Glasser almost no one supports free speech as a general principle. After all when the movies about Skokie are made it is not the Jewish ACLU lawyer who’s the hero of the film it is the guy trying to shut down the march.

    1. Not in my book. And I know TONS of people who value it and see it as a societal positive. In fact, my own University does.

      And no, the guy trying to shut down the march is not my hero; Glasser it.

      Sorry, but you are offering your opinion as a general statement of truth when in reality it is your personal view, and I doubt that everybody on this site but me will agree with you.

      1. I was speaking about America as a whole. We have always had to fight tooth and nail to defend free speech, from blasphemy laws to Ulysses and Lady Chatterly’s Lover, and it continues to this day with an entirely new group of censors. I am sure every one here including me treasures free speech, but as in many other ways WEIT is not representative of America as a whole on this issue.

      2. I don’t think anybody supports free speech in all contexts. For example, I don’t know many people who would say you should be allowed to use speech to incite violence against named individuals or even groups. Also, whilst many people would argue current libel laws aren’t perfect, I don’t know anybody who would say you should be able to get off scot free with defaming people.

        The reality is that there are limits to speech in every society. My personal opinion is that the law in the USA is about right and I don’t think any speech except the incitement examples should carry the threat of a criminal prosecution.

    2. I think most people believe in free speech in principle, but not in practice. Free speech is fine until words are uttered that people don’t agree with.

      The assertion that the free exchange of ideas will or could result in the eventual emergence of the truth is largely a superfluous argument. This is because most debates of public interest that get people riled up are not about convincing others to accept an empirical truth, but is largely about unprovable opinion or values. Consider the following questions that are hotly debated today. How much immigration is good for the country? Is raising interest rates with its concomitant rise in unemployment the best way to reduce inflation? How much is Trump a threat to democracy or is democracy all that important? How and what about American history should be taught in schools? How much should “religious freedom” be allowed to permeate the country? Should unfettered free speech that spreads lies be allowed on social media?

      How people answer these questions have little or nothing to do with the emergence of “truth.” People’s minds may be changed by debates over these issues, but it is opinion that is changed, subject to being changed again sometime in the future. This is why debates over these or similar issues have gone on for centuries, never to be resolved.

      So, the value of free speech is that people are exposed to ideas that can change opinion. And the changing of opinion does not guarantee that this will result to the liking of those that believe true free speech may result at some time, if not now, in a mythical truth. At best, it can lead to a consensus of opinion.

      1. “How people answer these questions have little or nothing to do with the emergence of “truth.”

        For most of those questions, that depends on how you define “truth,” and you’re defining it in your own opinionated way. For questions to which we do not have concrete answers, “truth” can mean many things, especially in a democracy. “Truth” can mean “the will of the people”; it can mean “whatever will bring the best outcome to the greatest number of people; “what will ultimately better the nation;” and so on. And, as to the last example, what does “better[ing] the nation” mean? When it comes to illegal immigration, does it mean what’s best for people who are already citizens of the nation, or does it mean the nation being a good “global citizen” and providing help to as many people as possible? And we can go on and on down the chain of what various words in these formulations mean.

        Hey, you know what’s really good for trying to parse this stuff? Free speech!

      2. I do agree with your general point, but I don’t think your explanation of what leads to it is accurate. Normally I wouldn’t nitpick, but in this case I think it’s very important to note.

        “This is because most debates of public interest that get people riled up are not about convincing others to accept an empirical truth, but is largely about unprovable opinion or values.”

        This is the part I disagree with. I’d argue that the extreme divisions we have in the US today are very much rooted in people not being able to be convinced of certain empirical truths. It has been a gradual process to get us to the extremes we see today and a variety of tactics have been used to encourage, or manipulate, people to be resistant to certain empirical truths in favor of lies of various sorts.

        The “wars” on science and professionals more generally, the propaganda from both religious and certain other ideological / political groups that preach that opinions are equal to or even trump facts, the relentless decades long purposeful propaganda campaign prosecuted by the RP culminating in the Big Lie tactic being openly made SOP by Karl Rove, and then the escalation of all these things by Trump and his minions. All of these things were aimed at divorcing people from reality, from empirical truths, and substituting a false history. These efforts have been so successful at compromising the general public’s grasp of empirical facts that even those opposed to the RP believe to some degree some of the false narrative. You see it every day even in the comment sections of websites composed mostly of academics on the left side of the spectrum. Occasionally I discover that I too have been swayed, or rather duped, on some issue. It is so much easier to bury people in bullshit than it is to clean it off of them.

  9. Nothing about the free speech debate, but…

    Annalee Newitz is notoriously woke and whiny, and her “science fiction” (and her review columns) is unreadable, filled with screeds. She’s one of the few authors on my “never (again) read and certainly never buy” list. I’m not even remotely surprised that she’s calling for censorship; I’d bet considerable quantities of hard-earned cash that she’ll be angling for a seat on the censorship board.

  10. I and many others favor extending the First-Amendment type of speech (excepting the already-mentioned exceptions) to nearly all venues, including social media.

    It already is. The First-Amendment type of speech is not permitted to be curtailed by the US Federal Government, or, thanks to the 14th Amendment, state governments. Of course, any private publisher, be it the NYT, Facebook, or WEIT, has the natural right not to publish any comment their owners, in all their wisdom, choose not to publish; it is part of the publisher’s natural right to free speech.

    Further, that speech isn’t “free” in the sense of being “unlimited”: the courts have, over the years, carved out exceptions in which the government can censor speech.

    And I pity anyone living under a government where free speech isn’t free, be it in the US or anywhere else. It’s just another case of governments doing what governments do, while their subjects fall under the sway of Stockholm Syndrome.

    Who, do you propose, should censor the speech of “anti-democratic politicians,” trolls, promoters of offense and hate, confusing messages (presumably false information about Covid and the like), and others.

    I still leave it up to the publishers. If Trump owns his own platform, he publishes what he wants there; no one else is obligated to publish his content.

  11. As what constitutes “harm” and “provoking violence” starts creeping more and more towards experiences of psychological distress, the last thing we need is truncating the principle of free speech. People exclusively hanging out in self-confirming bubbles of agreement eventually lose their perspective.

    Besides, if you don’t understand the other side, you don’t understand your own side.

  12. Indeed, as you say, who is going to police this amended version of free speech? Will speech need to comply with new norms that *she* sets? Or will the new norms be established by someone else. And if she doesn’t like those new norms, will we hear from her again to complain that free speech hasn’t been muzzled to her liking? What if, in this brave new world of modified free speech, *her* speech ends up being among the prohibited forms of speech? It would be indeed ironic if she gets what she wants and as a consequence cannot complain about it without committing a crime.

    This columnist is not playing a very good game of chess. She can’t seem to think beyond her first move.

    1. It seems that most people who advocate for censorship believe they are on the side of the angels, and cannot fathom a situation in which theirs is the speech that gets censored. The belief that your own opinions ought to be self-evident to all right-thinking folks is the mark of a non-serious thinker.

  13. There are two reasons the Bill of Rights does not enjoin private companies from “censoring” speech:
    1. The document’s explicit purpose is to limit the power of the state.
    2. The idea that private companies would ever have such power was unfathomable.

    1. Historically, the US has employed censorship far beyond what would be acceptable today, e.g. by imprisoning pacifists during WW1. I doubt that the Founding Fathers envisioned the expansive interpretation of the First Amendment that is in use today (I am not even sure about their attitudes towards abolitionist writings, given the later history of Southern states in that area).

      Amusingly, Pinker once gave a speech in which he wanted to say that free speech had been placed first in the list of constitutional amendments for a reason, only to go on to say that it was nothing but a coincidence.

      The Founding Fathers were surely self-interested, as most supporters of free speech have been. Right-wingers today would be much less interested in the subject if their views were not frequently censored and occasionally criminal offenses punishable by imprisonment. In that respect, they do not differ from Jacobins, 19th-century socialists or the free speech movement of the 1960s, all of which strongly opposed censorship until they gained power.

  14. I and many others favor extending the First-Amendment type of speech … to nearly all venues, including social media.

    As a near free-speech absolutist, I agree with Citizen Coyne. I’ll admit, however, that my interest in this particular subject is purely a matter of responsible citizenship, since I don’t do social media myself (hell, some days I barely feel social enough to comment here) and I certainly have no intention of becoming a social-media mogul.

    The issue I see (and what I suspect may have put the hink in Mr. Musk’s plan to buy Twitter) is that no one yet seems to have come up with a workable business model for making a go of a social-media platform that adheres to unmoderated 1st Amendment free0speech principles. The problem is that any web platform or hosting site dedicated to that goal tends rapidly to devolve into a free-for-all cesspool (see the experiences of 4chan and 8chan and various subreddits) — which is to say, becomes the type of place that people who want to go online merely to swap cat pictures and recipes do not care to visit.

    Still, I wish him or her well, anyone who can figure out how to square that circle.

  15. In my day New Scientist was a magazine about Science.
    Try telling that to the young people of today and they won’t believe you.

    1. I have eschewed New Scientist from the day of their shill “Darwin was wrong“ cover come-on. Many thank to Jerry and friends back then for making the attempt to hold the wily business and marketing managers there to account. Maybe they should update their name for truth in advertising to to New Political Scientist.

    2. I dropped my subscription when they first started including a political viewpoint in their science reporting, and that was back in the seventies!

  16. A slight digression, on the remark made about the New Scientist: “Now this isn’t my favorite publication—not since its famous and misguided “Darwin Was Wrong” cover.”

    I merely wanted to point out that the New Scientist does publish articles of genuine evolutionary interest, such as the one here:

    This isn’t the first evolutionary piece they’ve published by the young scholar, Cambridge PhD student, and science writer Jonathan R. Goodman. At least let’s give the magazine credit for doing better on evolution from time to time.

    1. Yes, I will admit that sometimes they publish stuff better than that anti-Darwinian dreck. But the average quality of New Scientist is, in my view (and that of many others, who don’t care to read it, VERY LOW. I’m not sure how pointing out one paper will somehow convince me that it’s my favorite journal!

  17. I wasn’t trying to convince you that it ought to be your favorite journal. It’s just good to know that there are many publications out there, the New Scientist among them, that do publish serious science writing on the evolution of infectious disease from time to time. This article is one such piece.

  18. NewScientist is NOT a serious magazine. It is a shill for vitamin/supplement hucksters (which is anybody selling ANY supplement, btw). In fact the next piece after Annalee’s badly written screed is some “article” about how some multivitamin will help your memory with age.
    It is not a forum we need even consider.

  19. We control advertising, why not propaganda, knowingly broadcasting false or misleading information? We see its corrosive power.

  20. Private platforms like Twitter have every right to set up rules for discourse that every user has to follow.

    What enrages people is that often Twitter will cancel someone, not for any rule violation, but simply because they did not like the idea being expressed.

  21. If you believe in free speech, then you believe in free speech for people with views you find wrong or offensive.

    Otherwise, all you are proposing is silencing people you disagree with. Only totalitarians think that way.

  22. We have seen in the last six years some of the results of uncontrolled free speech, which has not yet reached an end. I think that some attempt to tamp down clear lies might have a positive affect.

    Implying that refereed journals represent free speech in the same way that twitter, facebook, truth social and other social networks do is off base.

Leave a Reply