[guest post by JVW]
The intersection of leftie journalists and Democrat politics is nothing new, and we all know that it was ramped up to the max during the eight years of Barack Obama. While GOP administrations also hire ink-stained wretches (think of the late Tony Snow, a reader and commenter on this site), it’s Democrats who benefit the most from the revolving door where journalists spend a few years collecting a federal paycheck, and administration officials step down from their jobs to accept lucrative media gigs. So has it been at least since the days of 24/7 news channels.
But at the very least, it seems to me that in the past the journalists who took positions in politics remained nominally committed to the First Amendment. However, like with everything else in these stupid times, that is no longer the case. Former Time editor and undersecretary in the Obama State Department, Richard Stengel, took to the opinion pages of the Washington Post to argue that this whole free speech thing perhaps goes too far:
When I was a journalist, I loved Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s assertion that the Constitution and the First Amendment are not just about protecting “free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”
But as a government official traveling around the world championing the virtues of free speech, I came to see how our First Amendment standard is an outlier. Even the most sophisticated Arab diplomats that I dealt with did not understand why the First Amendment allows someone to burn a Koran. Why, they asked me, would you ever want to protect that?
I feel bad that Mr. Stengel’s education (Princeton, Rhodes Scholar at Oxford) and professional background (Time, professorship at Princeton, Obama State Department, MSNBC) have left him so vasty unprepared to defend the First Amendment when confronted by fellow diplomats from religiously intolerant kleptocracies with an ugly history of repression. I think I could have knocked that one out of the park, but that’s probably because I lack the sophistication of a man who is no doubt intimately familiar with the salons of New York, Washington, London, Paris, Cairo, Istanbul, and other exotic destinations. And where some noob like me might see a great deal of slippery-slope and other complications that result in drawing lines on what is acceptable speech and what is decidedly not, the suave and debonair Mr. Stengel has it all worked out:
Yes, the First Amendment protects the “thought that we hate,” but it should not protect hateful speech that can cause violence by one group against another. In an age when everyone has a megaphone, that seems like a design flaw.
It is important to remember that our First Amendment doesn’t just protect the good guys; our foremost liberty also protects any bad actors who hide behind it to weaken our society. [. . .]
Wait, so people might take advantage of our freedoms in order to undermine it and cause harm? OK, that might not be a particularly original argument, but this could be the first time that it was so forcefully advanced by a Rhodes Scholar turned media editor turned professor turned diplomat. From there, Mr. Stengel launches into a jeremiad against the baneful meddling of — yep, you guessed it — Russia:
In the weeks leading up to the 2016 election, Russia’s Internet Research Agency planted false stories hoping they would go viral. They did. Russian agents assumed fake identities, promulgated false narratives and spread lies on Twitter and Facebook, all protected by the First Amendment.
The Russians understood that our free press and its reflex toward balance and fairness would enable Moscow to slip its destructive ideas into our media ecosystem. When Putin said back in 2014 that there were no Russian troops in Crimea — an outright lie — he knew our media would report it, and we did.
So there you have it: it’s not just the fact that the average American, to Mr. Stengel’s mind, is too stupid not to fall for Russian disinformation, but his own profession (journalism, in this case) is somehow ethically required to provide a respectful outlet for Vladimir Putin’s propaganda by Constutional precepts. If only we all were as perspicacious as Richard Stengel and could see through these bald-faced efforts to brainwash us! If only elaborately-educated and highly-trained public servants like Mr. Stengel could not only curate content for us, but had the ability to block out content that his insightful mind and discerning eye knew was harmful to our republic! OK, maybe it’s not us, the Washington Post opinion page reader, who is the problem, grants the generous author. The real problem is that our darn young ‘uns are getting suckered in:
On the Internet, truth is not optimized. On the Web, it’s not enough to battle falsehood with truth; the truth doesn’t always win. In the age of social media, the marketplace model doesn’t work. A 2016 Stanford study showed that 82 percent of middle schoolers couldn’t distinguish between an ad labeled “sponsored content” and an actual news story. Only a quarter of high school students could tell the difference between an actual verified news site and one from a deceptive account designed to look like a real one.
In other words, the major news providers in this country spent years giving us news coverage cultivated in order to amplify whatever social crusade was currently in fashion (environmentalism! racial justice! homelessness! nuclear proliferation! immigration!) and now can’t seem to understand why we don’t take The New York Times, Newsweek, and NBC News any more seriously than we take Buzzfeed, The Babylon Bee, or RT.
And so we get to the crux of his argument. This country would be better off, and the First Amendment would be made stronger, if we joined the rest of the world in outlawing — ahem, ahem — “hate speech”:
Since World War II, many nations have passed laws to curb the incitement of racial and religious hatred. These laws started out as protections against the kinds of anti-Semitic bigotry that gave rise to the Holocaust. We call them hate speech laws, but there’s no agreed-upon definition of what hate speech actually is. In general, hate speech is speech that attacks and insults people on the basis of race, religion, ethnic origin and sexual orientation.
[. . .]
Let the debate begin. Hate speech has a less violent, but nearly as damaging, impact in another way: It diminishes tolerance. It enables discrimination. Isn’t that, by definition, speech that undermines the values that the First Amendment was designed to protect: fairness, due process, equality before the law? Why shouldn’t the states experiment with their own version of hate speech statutes to penalize speech that deliberately insults people based on religion, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation?
Mr. Stengel might do well to reckon that the same laws which can ban the burning of the Koran can also ban the burning of the United States flag. And bless his heart for making a nod towards Federalism (as the joke goes, the best thing about the Trump Presidency is that it has made leftists into champions for allowing states to set their own course), but can you imagine a scenario where something said in Massachusetts is determined to be punishable by law while the same thing said in Texas is perfectly fine? As Charles Cooke noted, it’s quite audacious for Mr. Stengel to announce “Let the debate begin” at the same time that he is calling for restrictions on speech. How long do you think it would take a state like California to outlaw virtually any argument that runs counter to what woke progressives fervently believe? Imagine the day when public discourse in this great nation of ours resembles public discourse at an Ivy League school or a flagship public university. That seems to be the desired outcome of the anti-hate speech crowd. Richard Stengel is certainly an intelligent and accomplished man, but his understanding of human nature is woefully lacking, and on this batty idea he cannot be taken seriously.