The Classical Liberal Approach to Digital Media Free Speech Issues

by on December 8, 2021 · 0 comments

On December 13th, I will be participating in an Atlas Network panel on, “Big Tech, Free Speech, and Censorship: The Classical Liberal Approach.” In anticipation of that event, I have also just published a new op-ed for The Hill entitled, “Left and right take aim at Big Tech — and the First Amendment.” In this essay, I expand upon that op-ed and discuss the growing calls from both the Left and the Right for a variety of new content regulations. I then outline the classical liberal approach to concerns about free speech platforms more generally, which ultimately comes down to the proposition that innovation and competition are always superior to government regulation when it comes to content policy.

In the current debates, I am particularly concerned with calls by many conservatives for more comprehensive governmental controls on speech policies enforced by various private platforms, so I will zero in on those efforts in this essay. First, here’s what both the Left and the Right share in common in these debates: Many on both sides of the aisle desire more government control over the editorial decisions made by private platforms. They both advocate more political meddling with the way private firms make decisions about what types of content and communications are allowed on their platforms. In today’s hyper-partisan world,” I argue in my Hill column, “tech platforms have become just another plaything to be dominated by politics and regulation. When the ends justify the means, principles that transcend the battles of the day — like property rights, free speech and editorial independence — become disposable. These are things we take for granted until they’ve been chipped away at and lost.”

Despite a shared objective for greater politicization of media markets, the Left and the Right part ways quickly when it comes to the underlying objectives of expanded government control. As I noted in my Hill op-ed:

there is considerable confusion in the complaints both parties make about “Big Tech.” Democrats want tech companies doing more to limit content they claim is hate speech, misinformation, or that incites violence. Republicans want online operators to do less, because many conservatives believe tech platforms already take down too much of their content.

This makes life very lonely for free speech defenders and classical liberals. Usually in the past, we could count on the Left to be with us in some free speech battles (such as putting an end to “indecency” regulations for broadcast radio and television), while the Right would be with us on others (such as opposition to the “Fairness Doctrine,” or similar mandates). Today, however, it is more common for classical liberals to be fighting with both sides about free speech issues.

My focus is primarily on the Right because, with the rise of Donald Trump and “national conservatism,” there seems to be a lot of soul-searching going on among conservatives about their stance toward private media platforms, and the editorial rights of digital platforms in particular.

In my new Hill essay and others articles (all of which are listed down below), I argue there is a principled classical liberal approach to these issues that was nicely outlined by President Ronald Reagan in his 1987 veto of Fairness Doctrine legislation, when he said:

History has shown that the dan­gers of an overly timid or biased press cannot be averted through bureaucratic regulation, but only through the freedom and compe­tition that the First Amendment sought to guarantee.

Let’s break that line down. Reagan admits that media bias can be a real thing. Of course it is! Journalists, editors, and even the companies they work for all have specific views. They all favor or disfavor certain types of content. But, at least in the United States, the editorial decisions made by these private actors are protected by the First Amendment. Section 230 is really quite secondary to this debate, even though some Trumpian conservatives wrongly suggest that it’s the real problem here. In reality, national conservatives would need to find a way to work around well-established First Amendment protections if they wanted to impose new restrictions on the editorial rights of private parties.

But why would they want to do that? Returning to the Reagan veto statement, we should remember how he noted that, even if the First Amendment did not protect the editorial discretion of private media platforms, bureaucratic regulation was not the right answer to the problem of “bias.”  Competition and choice were the superior answer. This is the heart and soul of the classical liberal perspective: more innovation is always superior to more regulation.

For the past 30 years, conservatives and classical liberals were generally aligned on that point. But the ascendancy of Donald Trump created a rift in that alliance that now threatens to grow into a chasm as more and more Right-of-center people begin advocating for comprehensive control of media platforms.

The problems with that are numerous beginning with the fact that none of the old rationales for media controls work (and most of them never did). Consider the old arguments justifying widespread regulation of private media:

  • Scarcity” was the oldest justification for media regulation, but we live in the exact opposite world today, in which the most common complaint about media is the abundance of it!
  • Conversely, the supposed “pervasiveness” of some media (namely broadcasting) was used as a rationale for government censorship in the past. But that, too, no longer works because in today’s crowded media marketplace and Internet-enabled world, all forms of communications and entertainment are equally pervasive to some extent.
  • State ownership and licensing of spectrum was another rationale for control that no longer works. No digital media platforms need federal licenses to operate today. So, that hook is also gone. Moreover, the answer to the problem of government ownership of media is to stop letting the government own and control media assets, including spectrum.
  • “Fairness” is another old excuse for control, with some regulatory advocates suggesting that five unelected bureaucrats at the Federal Communications Commission (or some other agency) are well-suited to “balance” the airing of viewpoints on media platforms. Of course, America’s disastrous experience with the Fairness Doctrine proved just how wrong that thinking was. [I summarize all the evidence proving that here.]

That leaves a final, more amorphous rationale for media control: “gatekeeper” concerns and assertions that private media platforms can essentially become “state actors.” In the wake of Donald Trump’s “de-platorming” from Facebook and Twitter, many of his supporters began adopting this language in defense of more aggressive government control of private media platforms, including the possibility of declaring those platforms common carriers and demanding that some sort of amorphous “neutrality” mandates be imposed on them. But as Berin Szóka and Corbin Barthold of Tech Freedom note:

Where courts have upheld imposing common carriage burdens on communications networks under the First Amendment, it has been because consumers reasonably expected them to operate conduits. Not so for social media platforms. [. . . ] When it comes to the regulation of speech on social media, however, the presumption of content neutrality does not apply. Conservatives present their criticism of content moderation as a desire for “neutrality,” but forcing platforms to carry certain content and viewpoints that they would prefer not to carry constitutes a “content preference” that would trigger strict scrutiny. Under strict scrutiny, any “gatekeeper” power exercised by social media would be just as irrelevant as the monopoly power of local newspapers was in [previous Supreme Court holdings].

Put simply, efforts to stretch extremely narrow and limited common carriage precedents to fit social media just don’t work. We’ve already seen lower courts declare that recently when blocking the enforcement of new conservative-led efforts in Florida and Texas to limit the editorial discretion of private social media platforms. If conservatives really hope to get around these legal barriers to regulation, what would be needed would be a more far-reaching strike at the First Amendment itself. That would entail a jurisprudential revolution at the Supreme Court — reversing about a century of free speech precedents — or an some sort of an effort to amend the First Amendment itself. These things are almost certainly not going to occur.

But, again, this hasn’t stopped some conservatives from pitching extreme solutions in their efforts to regulate digital media at both the state and federal level. I discuss these efforts in previous essays on, “How Conservatives Came to Favor the Fairness Doctrine & Net Neutrality,“ “Sen. Hawley’s Radical, Paternalistic Plan to Remake the Internet,“ and “The White House Social Media Summit and the Return of ‘Regulation by Raised Eyebrow’.“ Perhaps some Trump-aligned conservatives understand that these legislative efforts are unlikely to work, but they continue to push them in an attempt to make life hell for tech platforms, or perhaps just to troll the Left and “own the Libs.”

On the other hand, some conservatives seem to really believe in some of the extreme ideas they are tossing around. What is particular troubling about these efforts is the way — following Trump’s lead — some conservatives, including even more mainstream conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation, are increasingly referring to private media platforms as “the enemy of the people.” That’s the kind of extremist language typically used by totalitarian thugs and Marxist lunatics who so hate private enterprise and freedom of speech that they are willing to adopt a sort of burn-the-village-to-save-it rhetorical approach to media policy.

And speaking of Marxists, here’s what is even more incredible about these efforts by some conservatives to use such rationales in support of comprehensive media regulation: It is all based on the “media access” playbook concocted by radical Leftist scholars a generation ago. As I summarized in my essay on, “The Surprising Ideological Origins of Trump’s Communications Collectivism“:

Media access advocates look to transform the First Amendment into a tool for social change to advance specific political ends or ideological objectives. Media access theory dispenses with both the editorial discretion rights and private property rights of private speech platforms. Private platforms become subject to the political whims of policymakers who dictate “fair” terms of access. We can think of this as communications collectivism.

Media access doctrine is rooted in an arrogant, elitist, anti-property, anti-freedom ethic that suggest the State is a better position to dictate what can and cannot be said on private speech platforms. “It’s astonishing, yet nonetheless true,” I continued on in that essay, “that the ideological roots of Trump’s anti-social media campaign lie in the works of those extreme Leftists and even media Marxists. He has just given media access theory his own unique nationalistic spin and sold this snake oil to conservatives.” Yet, Trump and other national conservatives are embracing this contemptible doctrine because now more than ever the ends apparently justify the means in American politics. Nevermind that all this could come back to haunt them when the Left somehow leverages this regulatory apparatus to control Fox News or other sites and content that conservatives favor! Once media platforms are viewed as just another thing to be controlled by politics, the only question is which politics and how are those politics enforced? Certainly both the Left and the Right cannot both have their way given all that current divides them.

Finally, what is utterly perplexing about all this is how much thanks national conservatives really owe to the major digital platforms they now seek to destroy. As I noted in my new Hill op-ed:

There has never been more opportunity for conservative viewpoints than right now. Each day on Facebook, the top-10 most shared links are dominated by pundits such as Ben Shapiro, Dan Bongino, Dinesh D’Souza and Sean Hannity. Right-leaning content is shared widely on Twitter each day. Websites like and get far more traffic than the New York Times or CNN.

Thus, conservatives might be shooting themselves in the foot if they were able to convince more legislatures to adopt the media access regulatory playbook because it could have profound unintended consequences once the Left uses those tools to somehow restrict access to “hate speech” or “misinformation” — and then define it so broadly so as to include much of the top material posted by conservatives on Facebook and Twitter ever day.

Not all conservatives have drank the media access kool-aid. In the wake of Trump’s deplatforming from a few major sites, a wave of new Right-leaning digital services are being planned or have already launched. (Axios and Forbes recently summarized some of these efforts.) I don’t know which will of these efforts will succeed, but more competition and platform-building are certainly superior to current calls by some Trump supporters for government regulation of mainstream social media services.

Again, this is the old Reagan vision at its finest! We can achieve a better media landscape, “only through the freedom and compe­tition that the First Amendment sought to guarantee,” not through bureaucratic regulation. It remains the principled path forward.


Additional Reading:

Older essays & testimony:

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