Freedom of speech is defined as the right to express any opinions without censorship or restraint. It was granted to us in the United States when our country declared independence and subsequently drafted the Bill of Rights. Our founders felt it was so important to have freedom of speech that they wrote it into the First Amendment and included it with other inalienable rights such as freedom of religion, freedom of press, the right to peaceably assemble and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. The right to free speech is so ingrained in our society that we forget that many countries around the world do not afford that right to their citizens.
How free is our speech? According to the Supreme Court of the United States, the U.S. Constitution protects free speech while allowing for limitations on certain categories of speech. Categories of speech that are given lesser or no protection by the First Amendment (and therefore may be restricted) include obscenity, fraud, child pornography, speech integral to illegal conduct, speech that incites imminent lawless action, speech that violates intellectual property law, true threats, and commercial speech such as advertising.
Let’s focus on that last section, commercial speech such as advertising, as it ties most into politics. How about hate speech? The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that hate speech is legally protected free speech under the First Amendment. Donald Trump is notorious for using hateful, demeaning language while attacking his political opponents and anyone else who upsets him on Twitter. While his tone is modern-day presidential in his eyes, and just plain rude for many others, it’s still protected speech under the laws of our country.
Recent statements by two of the 2020 Presidential Democratic hopefuls have got me thinking about the topic of free speech. The first involves Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA) attacking Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and the second revolves around Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard’s (HI) recent feud with 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Warren is upset with Zuckerberg over his apparent decision to not restrict political advertising on his social media platform. She’s accusing the Facebook CEO of helping Donald Trump win the presidential election in 2016 and aiding his reelection at a profit.
“Facebook is actively helping Trump spread lies and misinformation,” the Senator from Massachusetts said in a tweet Thursday, adding that Facebook is “unprepared” to deal with the 2020 election. In a recent speech at Georgetown University, Zuckerberg defended his decision to err on the side of allowing more speech on Facebook, rather than less, even as the company has been attacked by both political parties for the types of content it hosts. Facebook has been criticized for both what it does and does not fact-check on its platform, and conservatives have complained that Facebook suppresses their voices.
Political ads have been a sticking point for Facebook in the past few weeks after the company said it would not remove or fact-check false ads placed by politicians in a response to a request from Joe Biden’s presidential campaign to remove an ad with unsubstantiated claims placed by Trump. Zuckerberg said in the speech that he’s gone as far as to consider eliminating political ads but said it would still leave ambiguity on where to draw the line.
“There are many more ads about issues than there are ads about elections. Do we ban ads about health care, immigration or women’s empowerment?” he asked. “If you’re not going to ban those, does it really make sense to give everyone else a voice in political debates except for the candidates themselves?”
Warren previously attacked the policy and deliberately placed her own ad falsely claiming Zuckerberg endorsed Trump to test how far Facebook would take its own rules. In response, a Facebook spokesperson previously told CNBC, “If Senator Warren wants to say things she knows to be untrue, we believe Facebook should not be in the position of censoring that speech.”
Facebook was cast as a villain of sorts in the 2016 election and was partially blamed by some for spreading false ads paid for by Russian firms that were in favor of then-candidate Trump and against Clinton. He defended his apparent censorship inaction after his company was being attacked. “Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook . . . influenced the election in any way — I think is a pretty crazy idea,” he said. “Voters make decisions based on their lived experience.”
The concept of campaigns running false and negative ads against their political opponents is nothing new. What Warren and many others appeared to be most upset with was the idea of a foreign actor or country engaging in the same activity. If running political attack ads is protected free speech in the United States, is that same protection afforded over the Internet by anyone around the world with a social media account? With Russian collusion theories dominating the domestic headlines for the better part of the last three years, clearly many in the media and D.C. feel otherwise.
Hillary Clinton was recently on a podcast with former Obama adviser David Plouffe. Clinton said she wasn’t “making any predictions, but [she thinks Russians] have got their eye on somebody who is currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate.”
“She’s the favorite of the Russians,” she added, saying they “have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far.” This past Friday Gabbard appeared on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and told the host that the former Secretary of State is waging a smear campaign against her because “she knows she can’t control me.” She also accused Clinton of having “blood on her hands” after the Iraq war she “championed.” “Their blood is on her hands. That’s why she’s smearing my character and trying to undermine my campaign,” she said.
Two other candidates running for president on the Democratic ticket, Andrew Yang and Marianne Williamson, defended Gabbard on Twitter. Yang wrote, “Tulsi Gabbard deserves much more respect and thanks than this. She literally just got back from serving our country abroad.” Williamson wrote, “The Democratic establishment has got to stop smearing women it finds inconvenient! The character assassination of women who don’t toe the party line will backfire. Stay strong @TulsiGabbard. You deserve respect and you have mine.”
During the fourth Democratic debate on Tuesday night, Gabbard attacked both CNN and the New York Times, calling them “completely despicable” for how they have covered her and other veterans. Gabbard was initially discussing foreign policy and how the mainstream media praised the dictatorship of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey. She then pivoted, calling out mainstream media outlets that often attack her for holding isolationist views.
“New York Times and CNN have also smeared veterans like myself for calling for an end to this regime-change war. Just two days ago the New York Times put out an article saying that I’m a Russian asset and an Assad apologist and all these different smears. This morning a CNN commentator said on national television that I’m an asset of Russia. Completely despicable.”
This is not the first time that she and the former Secretary of State have clashed. During the 2016 election, Gabbard stepped down from her position as DNC Vice Chairwoman and backed Clinton rival Senator Bernie Sanders (VT).
“You can tell what a person will do in the future based on what they’ve done in the past,” Gabbard stated in an email to the Star-Advertiser. “Hillary Clinton was not only the leading Democratic voice for the war in Iraq, she was the head cheerleader and architect of the war to overthrow the Libyan government of Gaddafi which has resulted in chaos, a failed state, and a stronghold for ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Hillary was and continues to be the loudest voice for the disastrous war to overthrow the Syrian government of Assad.”
“These wars of regime change have cost trillions of dollars, thousands of American lives, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, women, and men in the Middle East,” Gabbard continued. “And Al-Qaeda and ISIS are stronger than ever.” Tulsi’s criticism of Clinton back then may be one of the reasons why many are attacking her now.
Gabbard also sued Google this past July for $50 million in damages claiming the tech giant violated her free speech rights when it suspended her advertising campaign after the first DNC debate. In the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Los Angeles, the House member from Hawaii said Google engaged in “election manipulation” when it blocked her from running ads for several hours on June 28, immediately after the first Democratic debate. By suspending her ad campaign — at the same time searches for Gabbard were spiking — “Google violated the campaign’s federal and state rights to free speech,” according to the lawsuit.
A Google rep said the brief suspension was due to “large spending changes” that were flagged by the company’s systems in order to prevent fraud. “In this case, our system triggered a suspension and the account was reinstated shortly thereafter,” the rep added. “We are proud to offer ad products that help campaigns connect directly with voters, and we do so without bias toward any party or political ideology.”
Two political candidates. Two different views on freedom of speech. Warren believes in the censoring of attack ads of her potential opponent. Facebook says, not so easy. Gabbard feels everyone in the DNC establishment, liberal media, and even Google are trying to silence her. Maybe its just politics as usual. There’s a reason why political campaigns are considered a blood sport and running for the highest office of the land is the bloodiest of them all. The stakes are high and only the strong survive. Gabbard is going up against a D.C. machine that silenced Bernie Sanders’ voice when it awarded super delegates to his 2016 opponent Clinton via fiat. Warren, Biden and every other person running for president seem to be fine with having domestic attack ads run against their opponent on Facebook so long as no one else joins in the game. While the influence of online commercials in our elections is debatable, what’s not is when our leaders advocate the toppling of regimes in Libya, Iraq, and Syria. They do so not with paid advertising or using “troll bots,” but with military muscle that silences a dictators’ speech permanently. Regime change wars cost much more than a price per click. For many on the debate stage who are upset about foreign interference and negative attack ads, I wonder if they think about the first amendment when they send our soldiers off to fight in wars that seek to change foreign leaders of which our troops have no say at all. If freedom of speech is cherished in this country, as many believe it is, it will be upheld and revered even when those opinions differ from our own. After all, freedom of speech is not just for some, but for everyone, regardless of who says it and where it comes from.