Over the last month, journalists such as Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss, and Michael Shellenberger have unveiled the “Twitter Files.” With unprecedented access granted by Twitter CEO Elon Musk, they have revealed a deep connection between the social media giant and government, a union the main purpose of which was to throttle content that the latter deemed false or misleading.
The reaction has been mixed. Conservatives, and independent-minded liberals such as Taibbi, are outraged, arguing that this corporate-government nexus is a profound violation of civil liberty. On the other hand, many progressives, and their friends in corporate media have shrugged their shoulders. There’s no violation of the First Amendment here, they claim, and anyway, the government has a compelling interest in making sure the truth wins out.
Free speech is expensive in college
While it is true that the Twitter Files have revealed no legal violation of the First Amendment, they have revealed a pattern that certainly runs against its spirit. And they demonstrate that vast swaths of corporate, government and media power no longer hold to the basic commitments of free speech, upon which this country was founded.
To appreciate this, we must think about the First Amendment as more than a juridical text. It certainly has plenty of legal implications today, but that was not really its original purpose, at least not if we judge from its originator, James Madison. The “Father of the Constitution” was in fact skeptical that the court could enforce a Bill of Rights if democratic forces aligned against it. Such “parchment barriers,” as he called them, would surely fall. Instead, one of Madison’s main arguments for the Bill of Rights was that it would inspire a love and understanding of true republican liberty.
From Madison’s vantage point, we can see the First Amendment as the embodiment of the liberties necessary for republican self-government. It envisions a zone of sovereignty for people to think their thoughts, write and speak their thoughts, get together with people who think similarly, and press the government to reform its ways accordingly. The reason is, as Madison later wrote, “Public opinion sets bounds to every government, and is the real sovereign in every free one.” For the people to truly rule themselves, their government can exercise no prior restraint upon them in the process of formulating their views. Otherwise, it is not the people who are actually in charge but rather the government. The text of the First Amendment indicates that the people stand above Congress, but since Congress alone writes the laws, its implication is that the people stand above the entirety of the government.
And note that the First Amendment was not primarily intended to protect the 21st century guild that is modern journalism. Sure, the power-adjacent court stenographers who are invited to attend the White House press briefings are protected by the First Amendment, but so is your cranky uncle who thinks that the president is an idiot and both parties are useless. Just as protected, in fact.
Yet the Twitter Files demonstrate there exists a large swath of policymakers, in the Justice Department, the national security apparatus, and even the White House, who do not believe in this principle. And given the collective disinterest by many in traditional media, so too do a good number of journalists who otherwise celebrate the First Amendment. The people, it seems, have to be monitored. There cannot be a freewheeling public debate. There must be boundaries, set by the government, corporate America, and the media, of course, lest the people come to the wrong decision.
This reveals another fundamental divergence between contemporary thinking and the American founding. This country came into being in part because of radical pamphleteers who denounced their king in the most strident of terms. And they kept on doing it, even after the American Revolution, without repercussion. Those who opposed the Constitution, for instance, were not silenced. Their voices were heard, and after the ratification debates, many of them entered the government. James Monroe, in fact, was an Anti-Federalist who eventually became president.
The purpose of the First Amendment was to ensure the perpetuation of this robust political debate. Not simply because the framers thought it was necessary for republican government but because the more the people interacted with each other, the better public decision-making would become. Again, to quote Madison, “Whatever facilitates a general intercourse of sentiments … particularly a circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people … is favorable to liberty.”
Or, consider Thomas Jefferson. He came to the presidency amid a highly fraught political campaign, where his High Federalist opponents had literally tried to silence his Republican allies through the Sedition Act of 1798. But Jefferson did not go measure for measure. Instead, in his first inaugural address, he argued, “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” Jefferson’s confidence in the capacity of the people to rule themselves stands in stark contrast to the views of many elites revealed by the Twitter Files.
There are practical limits to freedom of speech. I cannot, for instance, conspire to commit a crime and when I’m caught argue that the conspiracy was merely an act of free speech. The precise details of when and how freedom of speech should be protected is a matter primarily for the courts.
But the spirit of the First Amendment, and its essential relationship to political liberty, is a matter of interest for all citizens, regardless of whether they spent three extra years in college to get their juris doctor.
Free speech in politics is necessary and beneficial for a free society. It is the only way by which the people can meaningfully rule their government, and the greater the “intercourse of sentiments,” the more likely the people will collectively figure out what is in their best interests.
This is not merely an American idea, either. In 1859, English philosopher John Stuart Mill argued in “On Liberty” for robust protections for free speech, not because it is a natural right but because it made society better:
The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.
In fairness, this is not a view that Americans have always held, although we tend to be embarrassed when looking back upon our violations of this principle. Radical forces within the Federalist Party tried to eviscerate the public liberty ahead of the 1800 presidential election. The United States under President Woodrow Wilson blatantly violated the basic doctrine of free speech to tamp down on dissent during World War I.
Indeed, the government went so far as to throw Eugene Debs, a political opponent of Wilson’s in the 1912 election, into jail. It was the otherwise forgotten or reviled President Warren Harding who had the decency to commute the sentence, along with about two dozen other of Wilson’s political prisoners. And at the beginning of the Cold War, efforts to purge communists from positions of political and cultural influence had a chilling effect on speech, in what we now today lament as the “Red Scare.”
Advocates of suppressing speech in the 1910s and 1950s said they were doing so for grand purposes. For what grand purpose is the government quietly conspiring with corporate America to suppress speech today? Does the survival of the country depend on silencing a handful of Twitter trolls or suppressing discussion of how to mitigate the effects of COVID-19? Of course not.
Instead, it reveals a view decidedly contrary to those of Jefferson, Madison, and Mill — something more in keeping with the elitism of the High Federalists. The people are not fit to make these decisions. The “better sorts” need to drive the conversation. Those naturally ennobled souls, in rarefied places such as the San Francisco branch of the FBI, the Trust and Safety Council at Twitter, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, must have the power to determine true from false, fact from fiction. The people cannot make those distinctions themselves. They instead need to rely upon the union of government and corporate power to keep them safe from themselves.
So, yes. The Twitter Files revelations are a big deal. They indicate a merger of state and corporate power to micromanage the public discourse and undermine a right that is essential to self-government. Any true friend of liberty should be very worried.
Jay Cost is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a visiting scholar at Grove City College. This article first appeared in The Washington Examiner, a sister publication of The Gazette.