Homegrown terrorism keeps metastasizing, spreading through America’s lymphatic and cardiovascular systems as rightwing radio, social media and television. Faced with our greatest domestic challenge since the Civil War, finding solutions for combating QAnon, neo-Nazi white supremacist groups and anti-government militias is not unlike curtailing Boko Haram, Al-Qaida, and the Taliban. Limit their outreach and growth, and determine what makes extremist propaganda so alluring: a tall order given that American law enforcement is limited by freedom-of-speech. As a result, anything the Biden administration does to mitigate domestic terrorism will reinforce narratives of politically-motivated censorship. Thusly, without accompanying moral clarity, liberty and freedom become hot buttons, emotionally charged repositories for lost dignity and pride, diminished self-worth, and caustic individualism. The lines between freedom of speech and shouting “Fire” in movie theaters become blurred and incendiary, what Oliver Wendell Holmes considered “clear and present dangers.” “Cancel culture” myths and resistances to political correctness and common courtesies become Molotov cocktails lobbed against pillars of society: logic and proficiency, truth and science, decency and compassion. When we give license to the injurious and facts take backseats to belief, freedom of speech becomes gnarly and twisted. What once was consigned to lunatics and fringe groups has First Amendment aprons strings with violent criminals and law-abiding citizens alike.
Today, movements of unfounded opinion match projection speeds of cavalcading events. Subjectivity outraces objective reflection. From sheer numbers and compulsions to share, mass opinion has enormous momentum, no matter how stupid, detached from reality or morally ungrounded. Thanks especially to social media, it’s harder to alter or educate a few than misdirect many. Before masses can be properly and responsibly informed about older events, new ones appear constantly on the horizon. “Moderation in pursuit of justice” may not be a virtue, as anarchistic speech writer Karl Hess inserted into Barry Goldwater’s address in 1964, but “extremism in defense of liberty,” if devoid of truth and ethics, is definitely a vice. No one has First Amendment rights to defraud by lying or falsely accuse a citizen.
Legal entitlements to public self-expression are neither constitutionally guaranteed nor vital to the nation, if by circumventing facts they spawn dangerous elements. That is the boundary between liberty and license. Freedom of speech is not an unrestricted avenue to bypass veracity, exploit ignorance and incite the passions and prejudices of people towards “imminent lawless action.” Because willful misrepresentation, whether propaganda, lobbying or disinformation, violates its central premise, freedom of speech isn’t a license to beguile or deceive. Without a core principal of effective and honest debate, unrestricted speech looses panderers, liars and propagandists, and the public, sooner or later, asks society for censorship. Freedom of speech, separated from its essential purpose of disseminating the truth, leads to its own destruction.
Cultural shifts in etiquette occur when human beings learn self-control, even before their prefrontal lobes are fully developed. People have stopped pleasuring themselves and urinating in streets because how we treat one another matters. There was a time when Americans routinely doffed their hats and extended common courtesies without feeling stripped of their rights. We could improve by such politeness again. After all, how hard is it to be politically correct, protect one another, pollute less and follow clinically-proven guidelines to get vaccinated, wear masks and avoid prolonging a pandemic?
Scott Deshefy is a biologist and ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.