Who decides which speech is free?

“To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.” — G.K. Chesterton

U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan’s Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government is now going after academics who’ve studied misinformation and disinformation.

Per the Washington Post, Jordan, a Republican from Ohio, recently threatened legal action against Stanford University for failing to comply fully with a records request. He has also gone after the University of Washington and New York University, among others, saying the researchers may have been part of a “censorship regime” backed by the federal government that aimed to silence conservative voices on social media.

Jordan says he aims to protect the First Amendment rights of all Americans, but he’s dangerously close to ending up the one squelching free speech.

The First Amendment forbids the government from passing a law telling people what they can or can’t say or telling publishers what they can and can’t publish.

The First Amendment does not say publishers have to publish all speech.

If the government forced publishers to carry specific content, that would infringe upon the free-press and free-speech rights of the publisher.

Take, for example, our letters to the editor policy here at The News: We allow a maximum of 300 words, require the letters to include the name of the letter-writer and the town where that letter-writer lives, and we forbid racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, or other types of hate speech, and prohibit criticism of non-public figures.

We always err on the side of publishing, but we have on occasion nixed certain letters or told letter-writers that certain parts of their letters ran afoul of our policy.

Each time, the decision was a judgement call by me and other editorial leaders here at The News.

Some people certainly would disagree with our choices and may not even agree that what we deemed a banned -ism or -phobia is in fact an -ism or -phobia.

But we make the call, and we run this First Amendment-protected newspaper, and I wouldn’t want anyone in the government telling me I had to publish any letter.

So it is with the social media companies targeted by Jordan’s committee. They are publishers who should be free to publish — or not publish — whatever they wish, so long as it doesn’t run afoul of other laws, such as threats or harassment or child pornography.

That is their First Amendment-protected right, and the government has no place telling them they have to carry some kind of specific content.

Even if, as Jordan alleges, social media companies colluded with the federal government and academics to decide which posts to remove, the social media companies have every right to choose to listen to those people or to ignore them.

It happens all the time with all kinds of media. When newspapers prepare to publish national security secrets, for example, government officials frequently meet with editors and publishers to discuss the potential harms publication would cause. Publishers and editors then decide what to publish or not, weighing the public’s interest in knowing the secrets against the potential harm. On occasion, publishers and editors are convinced to not publish all or parts of stories because the potential harm outweighs the public interest.

If the government doesn’t like the decision, the government can sue the media company. The government usually loses, because the First Amendment protects the right to publish.

If people don’t like what a publisher publishes or doesn’t — or what a social media company blocks or doesn’t — the First Amendment allows those people to start their own publications. That’s why former President Donald Trump launched Truth Social and why news sites like One America News Network have popped up in recent years. That’s why Elon Musk took over Twitter. Those companies, like every other media outlet, are free to moderate their content in whatever way they choose. And they do.

I believe all social media companies should, like this newspaper does, publish a wide variety of voices from across the ideological spectrum. However, if any outlets wants to become a liberal or conservative outlet only, that’s their right.

In short, the First Amendment doesn’t require publishers to behave in any specific way. It grants them the freedom to behave as they wish.

It does require the government to behave in a certain way — namely, it requires them to not interfere with how publishers want to behave.

So, unless Jordan can prove the government in some way used its mighty power to coerce social media companies to remove or block specific content (a request from the government doesn’t cut it), he’s barking up the wrong tree.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-354-3112 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.


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