July 10, 2020 — A letter signed by over 150 prominent intellectuals and artists was published by Harper’s Magazine on Tuesday, warning against an “intolerant culture” engulfing American values.
“As writers, we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes,” the letter read.
The letter immediately drew criticism, with many arguing that mistakes causing measurable harm to minority populations deserve to result in consequences.
In a Thursday virtual conversation with Sam Knight, senior vice president and chief program officer of the Knight Foundation, Mary Anne Franks, a University of Miami law professor and president of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, shared her insights as one of the leading thinkers on the harmful effects of certain online speech.
In her recent book, The Cult of the Constitution, Franks attempted to unpack how the First Amendment is understood in America, finding that many interpret the text to advance their personal political views.
“People understand when this happens in the religious context,” Franks said, adding that people can comprehend when an individual’s attachment to their own self-interest affects the interpretation of a text.
“It’s important to ask who is speaking all the time,” Franks said. “It is politicians, capitalists and the same people running a monolithic culture of the freedom of speech.”
“Primarily white wealthy men’s views are there,” she continued. “There’s no way to ignore the president’s speech on Twitter.”
Yet these prominent voices often belong to the same individuals saying that their speech is being stifled or not fully heard.
“Do we actually think women and minorities have the same freedom of speech that everyone else has? Is their speech really free?” Franks asked.
Women and minorities are the primary targets of death threats and doxing online, things that no individual deserves, she pointed out.
Franks honored contributors to the #MeToo movement, an ongoing online movement against sexual harassment and sexual abuse where people publicize their allegations online, saying all of these individuals were putting themselves at risk.
Women and minorities often choose to be anonymous online to protect themselves, while white males are often anonymous online in order to harass others without consequences, she claimed.
Franks suggested individuals should ask themselves, “Does your speech impose risk? If so, who is experiencing the burden of the risk of your speech?”
“It doesn’t matter how much you feel, it matters how much measurable harm your speech is causing,” she said.
Franks pointed to crucial lessons she learned from Michelle Vocaulx, who distinguished between fearless speech and reckless speech.
“Fearless speech has to involve taking a risk to one’s self,” she said. “Reckless speech is the provocative.”
Franks argued that the internet has fundamentally altered speech, increasing the amount of reckless speech.
“It makes us all impulsive and makes us judgmental of other people’s impulses,” she said.
To draw out this point, she compared the speech norms of the internet to the speech norms of the university.
“When in conversation in the university, you can’t just send the student away — your job is to continue to have a conversation,” Franks said. “We don’t have to make a judgement about that person. We can make a judgement about society.”
Yet the norms of the internet encourage bad faith speech that is “less generous, less compassionate, less interesting, less informative and less thoughtful,” she said.
Franks also questioned whether the plethora of online reckless speech is really speech at all.
“The First Amendment has real contested boundaries between speech and conduct,” she said. “If I punch you in the face, that’s conduct, not speech.”
“One of the problems of the internet, which is contributed to by Section 230 but also the tech industry, is that it promotes the idea that everything online is speech, when it’s really not,” Franks argued.
“You buy things online, you socialize online — the Internet has become intertwined with all of our daily activities,” she continued.
Categorizing all of these digital interactions as speech, especially when they would not be considered speech in the offline world, is wrong, Franks said.
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