Attitudes to free speech are changing, and Steve Bannon has something to do with it

Posted at 5:34 AM, Sep 08, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-08 12:25:08-04

Two widely read magazines made two different decisions about Steve Bannon this week. The New Yorker on Monday announced it was disinviting Bannon as a speaker at its October festival, while the London-based Economist on Tuesday defended its decision to keep him on at its own event this month.

The magazines received a torrent of criticism that the media is giving a megaphone to a dangerous white nationalist of waning relevance.

But what happened to the argument of free speech? The idea that anyone can say anything they like, as long as it doesn’t cause harm to someone else, is unraveling in the age of online fake news, alternative facts, trolling and conspiracy theories. Steve Bannon has something to do with all those things.

Free speech advocates have no problem giving Bannon more room to speak. As the Economist’s editor-in-chief Zanny Minton Beddoes points out: “He helped propel Donald Trump to the White House and he is advising the populist far right in several European countries where they are close to power or in government.” She has a point. Bannon may have come from the fringe, but he’s been undoubtedly influential in creating Donald Trump’s America, as the President’s former chief strategist, and he’s now trying to spread his wings abroad.

The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, went the other way, saying that while he had hoped for “a rigorous interview” onstage with Bannon to challenge his views, he conceded there were better ways to achieve that scrutiny than by giving Bannon yet another platform.

The growing number of these “disinvitations” — many of them at universities in both the US and UK — shows a shift in attitudes to free speech, and even a desire to move its goalposts.

What some people pointed out to the New Yorker about Bannon was that his presence at the festival was not just a matter of the freedom to express one’s views. It was also about his track record in distributing false information through Breitbart, the website he co-founded in 2007.

Breitbart has run stories that support climate change denial, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that it’s real. It has also run stories alleging the Obama administration was supporting al Qaeda in Iraq, an accusation that has no basis in fact.

In 2016, Bannon himself told news site Mother Jones that he had made Breitbart the platform for the “alt-right,” a group that bands together white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other fringe far-right groups. Although he was ousted by Breitbart shortly after Trump dropped him as an adviser, Bannon is inseparable from Breitbart and the values it espouses.

A generational shift

Attitudes to free speech depend on age. Forty percent of millennials in the US — where free speech is enshrined in its constitution — think the government should be able to prevent people from saying things that offend minority groups, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. That drops to 27% among generation X respondents, 24% among baby boomers and just 12% for “silent generation Americans,” aged 73 to 90.

But free speech has always had its restrictions. In most developed countries, you’d be fined for defaming someone’s character. Inciting hatred with speech is illegal in some parts of the world, and privacy can also place limitations on what you say.

Some millennials say they want to see these restrictions widen. This desire is most visible in the growing number of “no-platforming” cases at universities, where people are denied invitations to speak, or their invitations are rescinded.

In the UK, radical feminists with views that students consider transphobic have been no-platformed. A senior academic hosted secret events on the discredited theory of eugenics at the University College London for three years, prompting a backlash from students.

Former Breitbart senior editor Milo Yiannopolous is another figure who has repeatedly been no-platformed, both in the US and UK.

Shakira Martin, president of the UK’s National Union of Students (NUS), said students valued free speech, but stressed that freedom must be balanced with creating safe spaces, particularly for minority groups.

The problem with free speech as we know it is that the playing field is uneven, she said, with some groups given the opportunity to shout louder than others.

“So many of the misunderstood and maligned practices that students have deployed to readdress that balance, such as safe space, are actually about extending free speech to those groups whose voices may not have been traditionally heard,” she told CNN.

“If your intent is to peddle views which are widely regarded as unacceptable in the 21st century, you shouldn’t be shocked if an invitation to speak is not extended.”

Martin has plenty of support in her views. A ComRes survey of more than 1,000 UK students in 2016 found that 63% of respondents supported the NUS’ no-platforming policy. Some 54% supported banning speakers when it threatened students’ safe space.

Several no-platforming cases both in the UK and US have been met with op-eds, often penned by older authors, dismissing students as “snowflakes,” too fragile to hear offensive views. Younger authors say older generations’ protection of near-absolute free speech is outdated.

The debate leaves universities with a difficult balancing act. The UK’s Department of Education is working on creating a clearer set of rules for universities to follow.

In May, Minister for Higher Education Sam Gyimah described the restrictions of free speech at universities as “chilling.” His predecessor, Jo Johnson, said universities should be fined for banning speakers.

“Freedom of speech plays a crucial role in generating rigorous debate, advancing understanding and allowing students to challenge conventional wisdom and discuss controversial subjects,” an education department spokesperson said in a statement to CNN.

While the department said it was working with higher education leaders on new guidance, it did not answer CNN’s question on whether universities should have the right to ban speakers espousing factually or scientifically incorrect views, such as supporters of climate change denial, eugenics or the anti-vaccination movement, for example.

Free speech in the digital age

It may not be surprising that a generation that grew up with the internet and social media has different ideas on free speech.

Social media was once hailed as the savior of free speech, offering a platform for marginalized voices. That’s still true, but with it has come more hate speech, more incitement to violence and fake news stories that in one case prompted a man to turn up to a pizza shop with a gun.

It has also seen the rise of trolling. That Russia has created entire troll farms with the express purpose to stifle debate online is one example of how social media has actually hampered free speech.

Laws around the world have not kept up with this major change in the way we communicate, according to Monica Horten, an expert on internet governance policy. At the heart of the problem is scale.

“What you’ve got now are millions of pieces of content going up online by individual people, and that immediately alters the scale of the problem, because the percentage of the content seen as problematic is going to be higher,” Horten told CNN.

After years of backlash from their own users, social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, are now regulating problematic content, such as fake news. But that poses its own set of problems, Horten said.

“The whole question of whether private actors should be able to make these kinds of decisions — governments are asking private companies that run these platforms to make decisions about which content should be removed — they are acting as censors and not always within the law.”

She added that what was needed was a new regulatory framework and a watchdog to audit private companies transparently.

Kate O’Regan, director of the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights at the University of Oxford, agreed that the world was still grappling with how to legislate online content, but said she was concerned at the changing attitudes to free speech.

“I understand people who don’t want to share a platform (with Steve Bannon) — they have the right to make those decisions. But at the end of the day we have to debate the ideas and let that conversation take place,” she said.

“I do think democracy by definition are places where we must allow deep-seated disagreements to be aired and they should be done in a civil manner.”