By Cameron Coyle, F/G Scholar
Freedom of speech is an idea that does not have a concrete definition, but Thomas Emerson’s opening line in “The System of Freedom of Expression” makes a factual observation when he calls it a complex mechanism, which explains why so many theories revolve around free speech. Differences of ideas naturally lead to debates about what the difference of what can and should be said, and there is no better example of this in today’s society than recently de-platformed conspiracy theorist and political commentator, Alex Jones.
The Jones example can be looked at best through two different theories. The first is human dignity, which states free expression is essential for personal fulfillment, covered by Rodney Smolla in “The Case for Open Culture” and John Stuart Mill throughout his life, while the second is the safety-valve justification, which argues unwelcome and unpopular speech needs protection so opposition can be expressed in a non-violent manner, covered by Steven Gey for the Florida State University Law Review in “The First Amendment and the Dissemination of Socially Worthless Untruths.”
Jones’ antics had gone on for years, but it seems his insistence that the Sandy Hook massacre was an inside-job planned by the government, along with the lawsuit from the slain children’s parents that followed, was the straw that broke the camel’s back (Cooper). His removed content from social media sparked cheers and outcries alike from different camps. Gey writes about a similar scenario when he cites men who have spent time in prison for writing books denying the Holocaust ever happened. While one of these consequences is much more serious than the other, people have claimed this is the beginning of a slippery slope that could one day give the government this type of power. Some claim this is a false parallel while others argue the internet is nearly as powerful as the government in terms of what information the public absorbs.
Looking at Jones’ issue through Gey’s lens, more specifically the safety-valve justification, brings up a specific and ironic problem—Jones’ distributed outrage did not act as a safety valve for his hate. In 2016 Jones perpetuated a conspiracy theory to his audience saying Hillary Clinton was involved in a child sex-trafficking ring that was using a pizza restaurant as a front, causing a man later that year to enter the pizza restaurant with an AR-15 and fire a shot inside (Kennedy). Jones used social media to spread this conspiracy theory, which no doubt played a role in it gaining traction. This violated multiple policies on different social media sites, giving them the right to remove his content from their websites. If sites like Facebook were being used to spread dangerous lies, then it is almost their responsibility to revoke his access. However, the precedent has been set and may be difficult to navigate going forward.
Looking at the situation through Smolla and Mill (human dignity) also provides interesting angles of the issue. Smolla points out that censorship is an instinct and also that hate speech overwhelms tolerance. Many wanted Jones deplatformed even before his Sandy Hook comments, and his rhetoric overwhelmed people and convinced a man to act dangerously and irrationally. Social media sites are allowed to use prior restraint since they are not the government, and Jones still has his own website he continues to make content for because of this. It appears fair that Jones lost his ability to reach the masses because he has technically not been completely silenced.
Mill states that people are fallible, and because of this we can’t comprehend how bad we can truly be, even when we are trying to speak our truth. Therefore, it once again seems to be someone’s responsibility to remove mass platforms from people who have been caught purposefully distributing false information to spread fear and hate. Since humans make mistakes by nature, there should be some agreement that people should be protected from being tricked.
Here lies another problem, however. Jones’ lawyer claimed his entire show was “performance art” in 2017 during a custody battle in which Jones’ ex-wife attempted to gain sole possession of their three children (Pitts). If Jones has sold himself out to become a shtick, then it may have been helpful to make his audience more aware of this. While some may have laughed, others were swindled and treated his show was real news, causing him to have real consequences. The entire Alex Jones issue, much like free speech itself, is one without any concrete answers.
Cooper, Aaron. “Six more Sandy Hook families sue broadcaster Alex Jones.” CNN, 6 Aug. 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/05/23/us/alex-jones-sandy-hook-suit/index.html. Accessed 10 Sept. 2018.
Kennedy, Merrit. “‘Pizzagate’ Gunman Sentenced To 4 Years In Prison.” NPR, 22 June 2017, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/06/22/533941689/pizzagate-gunman-sentenced-to-4-years-in-prison. Accessed 10 Sept. 2018.
Pitts, Leonard. “Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones says ‘I’m only kidding.” But the joke’s on us.” Miami Herald, 18 April 2017, https://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/leonard-pitts-jr/article145379884.html. Accessed 10 Sept. 2018.