Which party is actually trying to censor speech? (Hint: It's not the Democrats)
This post brought to you by a really bad "Morning Joe" segment
Yesterday morning, I saw this tweet from Jeff Jarvis:
“No, Joe, these are not ‘issues,’” he tweeted. “These are Republican tropes intended to take over the media agenda. Judging by this, it’s working.”
He’s absolutely right. Democrats aren’t running on a “censor conservative voices, turn colleges into liberal echo chambers, be ‘politically correct’ and ‘cancel’ historical figures” platform.
“There’s also an assault on free speech from the left that’s hurting the party,” said Morning Joe co-host Mika Mika Brzezinski.
Assault on free speech… from… the left?
PEN America keeps tabs on so-called “educational gag orders,” or policies banning certain topics from being taught (or, in some instances, even mentioned) in the classroom. You’ve probably heard about some of these in the form of bans on teacher-led discussions of race, gender, American history, LGBTQ topics, and more. Plus, there’s the matter of the big uptick in efforts to ban books from being carried in schools and public libraries. These are actual attacks on free speech, and they’re coming almost entirely from the right.
“I am writing to you about recent revelations that Texas students have been exposed to pornographic books and content in Texas public schools,” wrote Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) in a letter to Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath last November. “In a previous letter, I directed the Texas Education Agency, along with the State Board of Education and the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, to begin developing statewide standards to prevent the presence of pornography and other obscene content in Texas public schools.”
Abbott went on to argue that it was “vital” to shield children from “inappropriate content,” and that the presence of “pornography” in schools was a violation of state law, which should be investigated.
“During this investigation, I ask the agency to refer any instance of pornography being provided to minors under the age of 18 for prosecution to the fullest extent of the law. We have a responsibility to ensure that no Texas child is exposed to pornography or obscene content while in a Texas public school, and your investigation will help accomplish this mission,” he concluded.
That same day, Gov. Henry McMaster (R-SC) sent a near-identical letter to the South Carolina Department of Education’s Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman, again threatening prosecution. McMaster cited Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer: A Memoir as an example of “pornography” that needed to be removed from school libraries. Kobabe’s graphic novel is certainly not “pornography,” and is almost certainly appropriate for high school students. That McMaster and Abbott both issued their letters on the same day gives a sense of how coordinated this right-wing attack on speech is.
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Branding material they dislike as “obscene” or “pornography” is part of the right-wing effort to fight against LGBTQ acceptance through the criminalization of speech. At the state level, you have Republicans in Texas, South Carolina, Iowa, Tennessee, Colorado, and, well, pretty much everywhere, trying to brand LGBTQ content “obscene” in hopes of getting it banned from public libraries, schools, and more. Texas went so far as to gut the state Department of Family and Protective Services website to remove resources like the number for a suicide prevention hotline and links to LGBTQ legal services.
To see exactly how this would play out at the federal level should Republicans retake power, look no further than Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL)’s “11 Point Plan to Rescue America,” which includes a number of anti-speech references1.
“We must defend the American family from societal elements that erode it,” reads one of the document’s headers. Beneath that point, Scott wrote, “We must enforce existing federal obscenity laws. Our society has almost given up on demanding decency, we must aim higher,” and, “We must protect our children from the explosion of pornography and cyber predators. The FCC must hold online platforms and broadband providers accountable for not adequately providing tools for parents to keep this trash out of their homes.”
When you take what Scott wrote and see exactly how Republicans are trying to stretch the meaning of words like “obscene” and “pornography,” it becomes abundantly clear that they are trying to find legal carve-outs to free speech in order to purge ideas they do not like. The policies they support are the same exact policies that have been implemented in authoritarian countries such as Russia and Hungary with the goal of pushing LGBTQ people out of public life.
All of this makes Brzezinski’s matter-of-fact comment about “an assault on free speech from the left that’s hurting [Democrats]” all the more frustrating. The right actually is waging “an assault on free speech!” But because there aren’t a thousand articles in The Atlantic yelling about it, the elite media bubble remains in tact.
No, there is not a “censoring of conservative voices on social media.” Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Honestly, Brzezinski and others who work at Morning Joe should issue an on-air correction for this one.2 She stated it as a fact, when it absolutely is not a fact.
New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights published a study last year titled, “False Accusation: The Unfounded Claim that Social Media Companies Censor Conservatives.” It’s 28 pages long, and well worth a read.
“Conservatives commonly accuse the major social media companies of censoring the political right,” the authors wrote in the study’s executive summary. “In response to Twitter’s decision on January 8, 2021, to exclude him from the platform, then-President Donald Trump accused the company of ‘banning free speech’ in coordination with ‘the Democrats and the Radical Left.’”