Here’s an interesting collection of essays, Social Media, Freedom of Speech, and the Future of Our Democracy (OUP forthcoming), edited by Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger and University of Chicago Law Professor Geoffrey R. Stone. It frames debates about free speech today, particularly on social media, as reflecting a “problem” for American democracy–the problem of “bad speech”–in need of urgent reform and new solutions. Contributors include Hillary Clinton, Senators Amy Klobuchar, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Mark Warner, together with a host of legal academics who are highly critical of the contemporary, speech-protective American legal regime. It’s a fascinating collection and choice of contributors purely as a matter of academic sociology, reflecting the prevailing skepticism among many experts about American First Amendment protections as well as what is felt to be an outsized cultural commitment to free speech that damages the more fundamental commitments thought by many scholars to be truly constitutive of the American polity. The title of one essay, in particular, was striking in the table of contents: Dean Erwin Chemerinsky’s chapter (co-authored with his son, it appears), “The Golden Era of Free Speech.” For many skeptics, a highly speech-protective regime was once very attractive and even necessary to dismantle the then-existing cultural superstructure, but is far less so today. I discussed the matter of free speech as posing a civic problem in this piece a few years ago–“the problem of how to allocate a resource in civically responsible ways, so as to limit freedom’s hurtful potential and to make citizens worthy of the freedoms they are granted. Only a somewhat virtuous society can sustain a regime of political liberty without collapsing, as a society, altogether.” It was a problem that was largely forgotten in the 20th century, but it has now been remembered.
One of the most fiercely debated issues of this era is what to do about “bad” speech-hate speech, disinformation and propaganda campaigns, and incitement of violence-on the internet, and in particular speech on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. In Social Media, Freedom of Speech, and the Future of our Democracy, Lee C. Bollinger and Geoffrey R. Stone have gathered an eminent cast of contributors–including Hillary Clinton, Amy Klobuchar, Sheldon Whitehouse, Mark Warner, Newt Minow, Tim Wu, Cass Sunstein, Jack Balkin, Emily Bazelon, and others–to explore the various dimensions of this problem in the American context. They stress how difficult it is to develop remedies given that some of these forms of “bad” speech are ordinarily protected by the First Amendment. Bollinger and Stone argue that it is important to remember that the last time we encountered major new communications technology-television and radio-we established a federal agency to provide oversight and to issue regulations to protect and promote “the public interest.” Featuring a variety of perspectives from some of America’s leading experts on this hotly contested issue, this volume offers new insights for the future of free speech in the social media era.