By Ronald J. Rosenberg
Ifind U.S. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York; Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota; Ayanna Pressley, of Massachusetts; and Rashida Tlaib, of Michigan, politically repugnant, because they advocate positions that I believe are destructive to our principles, our nation, our allies and our future.
Typically, last year Ocasio-Cortez initially voted no on a bill that would have helped fund Israel’s anti-missile defense system, the “Iron Dome.” She later flipped her vote to “present” when she realized that her antisemitic venom was a little too obvious.
Despite her corrosive politics, however, I absolutely defend her right to engage in such actions for, in a democracy, she and her fellow socialists have a protected right to be heard. It is their constituents who have the power to decide whether these individuals deserve to represent their interests on Capitol Hill. In the meantime, our democracy allows us to argue, debate, question and examine their rhetoric, votes, and public policies.
And yet we live in a world where freedom of speech has been suppressed by those who control the most dominant platforms for public speech, social media. “Facebook jail” has become an oft-repeated phrase among those who have been banned by an algorithm programmed by those who aren’t identified, much less questioned. Some who are forced off theses platform say they are mystified as to why action was taken when they were posting photos of American flags.
This isn’t exactly a new complaint, but it has become far more dangerous to democracy. As far back as 2016, it was noted that Facebook was labeling any number of conservative posts “hate speech.” The publication The Hill noted that year, “Canadian conservative activist Lauren Southern was slapped with a 30-day Facebook suspension over — ironically enough — a post complaining about Facebook censorship of conservatives. (The ban was later reversed and blamed on an error.)”
This kind of subjective destruction of free speech is not unique to online commentary. In colleges and universities across the country, there’s an acknowledgment that conservative students are intimidated by their peers. Interestingly, in a 2020 essay in The Atlantic, a summary of a nationwide campus survey found a glimmer of good news and a shadow that casts a pall on free speech.
It stated, “While majorities favor more viewpoint diversity and free-speech norms, an intolerant faction of roughly a quarter of students believe it is okay to silence or suppress some widely held views that they deem wrong.
“Students across political perspectives engage in classroom self-censorship.
“Students harbor divisive stereotypes about classmates with different beliefs, and a substantial minority are not open to engaging socially with classmates who don’t share their views.
“Disparaging comments about political conservatives are common.”
An equally disturbing finding from this survey was the idea that conservative students feel intimidated by the potential threat of violence from their liberal counterparts. It found that nearly 68 percent of those who described their political views as conservative censored themselves, while just under half of moderates, and only 24 percent of liberals, said they did so.
Were it just an isolated virus on college campuses, you might look the other way. But this lethal threat to our nation is being replicated in government, the courts, and in our daily interaction with business associates, colleagues, friends and even family members. It has become a toxin in the body politic of a country founded on the words of the First Amendment, guaranteeing free speech.
The First Amendment is the immovable cornerstone of our nation. I often find myself at odds with who the American Civil Liberties Union will represent in court, but I stand solidly beside them when they write, “An open society depends on liberal education, and the whole enterprise of liberal education is founded on the principle of free speech. How much we value the right of free speech is put to its severest test when the speaker is someone we disagree with most.
Speech that deeply offends our morality or is hostile to our way of life warrants the same constitutional protection as other speech because the right of free speech is indivisible.”
Again, the ACLU gets it right when it states, “More speech — not less — is the answer most consistent with our constitutional values.”
A vibrant, robust, and strong democracy requires the unequivocal defense of our freedom of speech regardless of where, when or how we choose to speak our minds. Lose that right and we have lost the Republic.
Ronald J. Rosenberg has been an attorney for 42 years, concentrating in commercial litigation and transactions, and real estate, municipal, zoning and land use law. He founded the Garden City law firm Rosenberg Calica & Birney in 1999.