“Have Trump’s Lies Wrecked Free Speech?”

Tom Edsall NYT column:

In the closing days of his presidency, Donald Trump has demonstrated that he can make innumerable false claims and assertions that millions of Republican voters will believe and more than 150 Republican members of the House and Senate will embrace.

“The formation of public opinion is out of control because of the way the internet is forming groups and dispersing information freely,” Robert C. Post, a Yale law professor and former dean, said in an interview.

Before the advent of the internet, Post noted,

People were always crazy, but they couldn’t find each other, they couldn’t talk and disperse their craziness. Now we are confronting a new phenomenon and we have to think about how we regulate that in a way which is compatible with people’s freedom to form public opinion.

Trump has brought into sharp relief the vulnerability of democracy in the midst of a communication upheaval more pervasive in its impact, both destructive and beneficial, than the invention of radio and television in the 20th Century.

In making, embracing and disseminating innumerable false statements, Trump has provoked a debate among legal scholars over whether the once-sacrosanct constitutional protection of free speech has itself become a threat to democracy by enabling the widespread and instantaneous transmission of lies in the service of political gain.

In the academic legal community, there are two competing schools of thought concerning how to go about restraining the proliferation of flagrant misstatements of fact in political speech.

Richard Hasen, at the University of California-Irvine Law School, described some of the more radical reform thinking in an email:

There is a cadre of scholars, especially younger ones, who believe that the First Amendment balance needs to be struck differently in the digital age. The greatest threat is no longer censorship, but deliberate disinformation aimed at destabilizing democratic institutions and civic competence.

Hasen argues:

Change is urgent to deal with election pathologies caused by the cheap speech era, but even legal changes as tame as updating disclosure laws to apply to online political ads could face new hostility from a Supreme Court taking a libertarian marketplace-of-ideas approach to the First Amendment. As I explain, we are experiencing a market failure when it comes to reliable information voters need to make informed choices and to have confidence in the integrity of our electoral system. But the Court may stand in the way of necessary reform.

Those challenging the viability of applying free speech jurisprudence to political speech face a barrage of criticism from legal experts who contend that the blame for current political crises should not fall on the First Amendment.

This is the topic of my book manuscript in progress, Cheap Speech.

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