Donald Trump’s declaration that he would run for president again in 2024 made me recall his previous tempestuous soap opera relationship with Twitter and “fake news.” And now we are living through the beginning of what could be an equally tempestuous soap opera triggered by Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter. After all, the left has decided that with Twitter no longer under its control, it now prefers a “hands around the neck of Twitter” approach rather than a “hands off Twitter” approach. It makes it worth revisiting the relationship between Twitter, and the constitutional freedoms of expression America’s founders guaranteed citizens for insight.
If we applied the same standards America’s founders applied to speech and the press to current media that did not then exist, there would virtually never be a time to acceptably deny Americans’ those freedoms. And that remains true even for Twitter or when “fake news” or “disinformation” is invoked as justification. However, as a recent Orange County Register editorial put it, “Maintaining a commitment to free speech and resisting the temptation to suppress contrary points of view is especially hard without an appreciation for why freedom of speech is important.” Let us consider that issue more closely.
The Constitution included freedoms of speech and the press because our founders knew freedom of expression was necessary to maintain liberty. They repudiated restrictions on the press because they remembered that colonial printers had been licensed, but licenses could be revoked and printers imprisoned (e.g., Benjamin Franklin’s brother, James). At the time, newspapers were the primary means of public communication, so they were insulated from political extortion from those who didn’t like what they printed. However, what was emphasized was freedom of expression, not the particular medium of expression used. If radio, TV and the internet existed in the 1770s, the principle behind freedom of the press would have been expressed more broadly.
To see this, you need only consider some of our founding generation’s own words, and those of their predecessors who greatly influenced their beliefs.
For instance, John Milton argued for freedoms of speech and the press, and against censorship, in England before America’s founding, which powerfully resonated with our founders. He wrote that we should “let [truth] and falsehood grapple,” because “truth … needs no policies or stratagems … to make her victorious. These are … the defenses that error uses against her power,” and “If it come to prohibiting, there is aught more likely to be prohibited than truth itself.” Instead, “All controversy being permitted, falsehood will appear more false, and truth the more true.”
“Cato’s Letters,” written by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon starting in 1720, which, according to Clinton Rossiter, were “the most popular, quotable, esteemed source of political ideas in the colonial period,” also powerfully defended freedom of expression. They wrote that “Freedom of speech is the great bulwark of liberty; they prosper and die together,” while in contrast, “Wherever truth is dangerous, liberty is precarious.” Further, they saw that those rights found their basis in our search for the truth. “Truth has so many advantages above error, that she wants only to be shown … she breaks the bonds of tyranny and fraud,” which has taught us that “we are as fit to use our own understandings, as they are whose understandings are no better than ours.”
A letter sent by the Continental Congress on Oct. 26, 1774, found that the importance of the freedom of the press “consists, besides the advancement of truth, science, morality, and arts in general, in its diffusion of liberal sentiments on the administration of government, its ready communication of thoughts between subjects … whereby oppressive officers are shamed or intimidated into more honorable and just modes of conducting affairs.”
John Adams argued, “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people … of the characters and conduct of their rulers,” which is why his distant cousin, Samuel Adams, found that “there is nothing so fretting and vexatious, nothing so terrible to tyrants … as a free press.”
Fisher Ames wrote that “freedom of the press … is a precocious pest, and a necessary mischief, and there would be no liberty without it.” George Mason said, “The freedom of the press is one of the bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.” James Madison, “the Father of the Constitution,” asserted, “To the press alone, checkered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity, over error and oppression.”
Thomas Jefferson, the American founder who wrote most prolifically about our freedoms, asserted that “our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” He also said, “I am … for freedom of the press, and against all violations of the Constitution to silence by force and not by reason the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents.”
Further, “that man may be governed by reason and truth” required that we “leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.” Therefore, “the only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.” In fact, Jefferson concluded that “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Our founders’ insistence on freedom of the press also came at a time when papers were often highly partisan (e.g., The Weekly True Democrat, which eventually became The Tallahassee Democrat) rather than “balanced,” so arguments that current partisanship justifies increased restrictions on the far broader range of media now influential are less than convincing.
Proposals for and threats of imposing politically motivated restrictions on those whose views or reporting are disliked by those with greater clout inside the beltway are sharply at odds with American liberty. In fact, they echo the Soviet ideal more than ours. As Vladimir Lenin put it: “Why should freedom of speech and freedom of press be allowed? Why should a government … allow itself to be criticized? I would not allow opposition by lethal weapons. Ideas are much more fatal things than guns. Why should any man be allowed to … disseminate pernicious opinions calculated to embarrass the government?”
Lenin was right that ideas are ultimately more fatal to government abuses than guns. That is why Americans must defend our freedoms of expression beyond just freedom of the print media. Part of that may involve dissolving some government-granted special privileges that act to restrict access to freedom of expression. But more importantly, we must remember that American understanding of the importance of our freedom of expression did not die with our founders. In John F. Kennedy’s words, “a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is afraid of its people.” And, as the late Supreme Court Justice William Douglas once put it, “Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.”
Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.