The federal government has no economic police speech

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A new report from nonprofit news organization Intercept describes how US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials have ramped up efforts to combat disinformation online, including pushing behind closed doors “to try to shape the online discourse” on social -Media platforms . Alarm bells should be ringing for anyone who cares about freedom of speech.

“The First Amendment prevents the government from deciding for us what is true or false, online or anywhere,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). tweeted on Monday in response to this report. “Our government cannot use private pressure to circumvent our constitutional rights.”

The free speech debate often gets out of hand, with fundamental misunderstandings about what the First Amendment does and doesn’t do. As we have repeatedly tried to emphasize, freedom of expression does not mean freedom from the consequences of this speech.

The first change does not prevent private entities such as social media platforms from establishing and enforcing rules on user content. It is not a violation of the First Amendment if platforms work to limit disinformation or hate speech, for example. Just as it is not a violation of the First Amendment for this newspaper to edit the columns and letters to the editor that we receive to ensure they are accurate. In fact, our ability (and responsibility, we would argue) to do so stems from the First Amendment.

What the First Amendment does is prevent the government from controlling speech or enforcing its own view of truth. So when we hear about the government’s efforts, even informally, to shape the language on private platforms, we feel very uncomfortable. We are all for organizations that ensure content they are responsible for does not reinforce hate or untruths, but the government should steer clear of these efforts.

Intercept’s story spans years of internal DHS communications, including a revealing message from Microsoft executive Matt Masterson to Jen Easterly, the director of DHS’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA).

“Platforms have to get used to the government. It’s really interesting how hesitant they remain,” Masterson said in February.

no No they don’t. The hesitation is justified and we share it.

Also of note is that Masterson himself is a former DHS official who brings up the issue of Washington’s revolving door between the public service and private sector, raising additional concerns.

It is no exaggeration to view this type of activity, in which government officials seek to influence speech from private platforms, as a slippery Orwellian slope. This isn’t quite as if the Chinese government, for example, exercises tight censorship controls over sites like Weibo. But it’s a step in that direction and too close to be comfortable.

The Intercept story included an important quote from former ACLU President Nadine Strossen.

“If a foreign authoritarian government were to send out these messages,” Strossen said, “we would undoubtedly call that censorship.”

We believe that media organizations and technology platforms should constantly think about how to minimize the spread of falsehoods and hatred. But the government should by no means try to influence these efforts.

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