March 20, 2020 – Slate Staff Writer Mark Joseph Stern led a discussion on how coronavirus could affect civil liberties through a quarantine-friendly platform. Future Tense hosted the “Social Distancing Social” on Thursday through Zoom, a practice that they will continue for the next few weeks.
Coronavirus is agitating election fears among the health and financial anxieties. “What is your worst-case scenario vision” for the election November, Stern asked the panelists.
People are expressing worries online that President Donald Trump will use coronavirus to cancel or postpone the election, said Elie Mystal, a justice correspondent for The Nation. “It can only be changed by an act of Congress,” said Mystal.
“As long as Nancy Pelosi draws breath,” the election will go on, Mystal said.
However, Mystal is worried about Florida in the coming election. He is concerned about other methods of affecting the election, like “selective quarantines.”
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has “a lot of power” that he can enact in November, like quarantines and curfews, said Mystal. This creates “significant coronavirus-laden obstacles,” said Mystal.
Republican governors will do what they can to affect the election, said Mystal. “Believe me they’ll do it” and they will use coronavirus as an excuse, said Mystal.
How is coronavirus affecting free speech?
“Speech suppression tends to arise along pandemics,” said Stern. “Do you foresee possible censorship coming about,” he asked.
American University Washington College of Law Professor Jennifer Daskal said speech censorship has already begun.
Online communications “increase the power and effect of censorship regimes,” said Daskal. “This is also a public health issue,” stressed Daskal.
Vox Senior Correspondent Ian Millhiser is less concerned with speech restriction than voter suppression. “I just feel like at least in a democratic nation… there are other ways that bad faith leaders have found to undermine democracy” than speech restrictions, said Millhiser.
Mystal challenged this view. Trump actively “tamp[s] down on the press’ ability” to have free speech, said Mystal.
“Traditional authoritarian crackdowns” are less scary than the age we live in with leaders that can “maintain a sense of normalcy” while practicing in bad faith, argued Millhiser.
Tech companies also play a large role in disinformation, said Daskal.
Mystal is doubtful that social media will help disseminate correct COVID-19 information effectively and protect users from false information, but he predicted liability issues will emerge in the near future.
If one of the tech communities gets sued over information that “caused a lot of people to die,” then companies could be held liable for COVID-19 misinformation spreading on the platform, said Mystal.
“It’s a hard line to draw” between misinformation and censorship, lamented Daskal.
Panelists criticize attributing race to coronavirus
Stern asked how the Trump administration might use COVID-19 to limit immigration.
“They already have,” said Millhiser. They have already restricted travel and borders to countries that are even “predominantly white,” said Millhiser.
“There are less legal questions” with coronavirus travel bans than the Muslim ban, said Millhiser. But permanent policies will demand action from the Supreme Court or Congress, said Millhiser.
“He’s gonna get people killed,” said Mystal passionately. Asian people are already suffering the effects of racism in the rise of coronavirus, said Mystal.
“The inability of our press to confront it appropriately is maddening,” said Mystal.
“Please be an ally and stand up against it,” urged Mystal. “This kind of thing is so dangerous,” declared Mystal.
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