Two hundred years ago, deposed autocrats were banished to prevent their causing harm.
Forced to abdicate his throne April 11, 1814 by the Treaty of Fontainebleau, Napoleon
Bonaparte was taken from Paris to Elba, largest spit of land in the Tuscan Archipelago.
Allowed to retain his emperor’s title, Napoleon’s letters, published in 1954, revealed his
colossal conceit, referring to handfuls of marines as his “Guard” and a few small boats
his “navy.” Months later, onboard Inconstant, he was ferried back to the mainland, where
he gathered supporters for another European conquest. Elba wasn’t isolated enough to
make his earlier exile stick. Declared outlaw by the Congress of Vienna prior to Waterloo
(June 18, 1815), he ultimately got a one-way ticket to St. Helena, a remote emerald isle in
the Atlantic, midway between subtropical South America and Africa.
In today’s contracting world, tightly interwoven by ISP routings, supersonic flight and
satellite transmissions, outliers of terrain with faraway names aren’t faraway places. Even
Pitcairn Is. in the South Pacific, where Fletcher Christian and HMS Bounty mutineers
self-exiled to escape the gibbet, has virtual and in-the-flesh tourists. Banishing “clear and
present dangers” to society must now include restrictions on social media access.
Teaching critical thinking in schools and hoping truth will out-propagate lies aren’t
enough to turn back tides of willful ignorance, white supremacist militia and anti-science
subcultures. Waves of disinformation, politicized anger and fomenting hatred are far too
numerous and infectious. Fortunately, private applications, such as Facebook and Twitter,
can impose their own rules and “banish” anyone who doesn’t comply. With pre-
established standards unilaterally applied, 1st Amendment rights remain inviolate.
Thusly, Facebook’s two-year suspension of Donald Trump’s account, finding the
violence he stoked contributory to the Jan. 6 th insurrection, is entirely justified, impartial
and within the venue’s rights. Allowing other users to read and comment on Trump’s
earlier posts seems lenient, given how Twitter permanently banned him from its services
entirely, expunging his account. Facebook should stop exempting politicians from clearly
stated rules prohibiting hate speech and ad hominem disparagement.
Just as “the dose makes the poison,” as Paracelsus said, too much freedom can be as toxic
as drinking too much water. Permitting that which potentially causes harm is never a
matter of freedom or liberty, only license. Yet, speech advocating amassing of firearms or
dangerous dependencies on fossil fuels and other pollutants to create jobs is protected.
Whereas, Oprah Winfrey and Howard Lyman (1996), swearing off beef to maximize
health, safety, ecology and ethics, can get sued (albeit unsuccessfully) by cattlemen for
“food disparagement.” To prevent future cases of SARS and other zoonotic diseases,
President Xi, saving countless human and nonhuman animal lives, including many
endangered, permanently closed China’s $76 billion “wet market” industry. In the U.S.,
such a righteous (if authoritarian) act, despite its benevolence, would have weathered
years of legal opposition from free-speech exploiters of wildlife and slaughter
In Schenck v. the U.S. (1919), Oliver Wendell Holmes concluded Charles Schenck,
asserting his 1st Amendment right to speak out and pamphleteer against WWI
conscription, wasn’t protected under the Espionage Act. Eugene Debs and others were
similarly jailed, speaking in favor of peace. Holmes equated their actions to “falsely
shouting FIRE in a crowded theater.” Skirting due process and rules of law, Trump’s Big
Lies, attempted coup and disinformation campaigns, undermining free elections and
attacking science by slandering Anthony Fauci, meet that definition most perilously.
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional