Freedom of speech is a national security concern, one that Americans are failing to protect. After recounting several instances where free speech was restricted by Google and multiple media outlets, authors David Reaboi and Kyle Shideler outline the assault on free speech in a webinar hosted by the Center for Security Policy on June 23.
As a leader in security policy and strategic communications, Reaboi offers his experiences and solutions for the preservation of free speech. Likewise, Shideler recounts his eerily similar experiences as a Director and Senior Analyst for Homeland Security at the Center for Security Policy. Both agree that the erosion of free speech is a threat to national security and offer vital measures to preserve it.
Reaboi and Shideler became free speech activists after they witnessed the reaction to the Danish cartoon controversy in 2006 where circulated cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed provoked violent riots in the Middle East and throughout majority Muslim nations. Both discovered a threat far more sinister than a few terrorists lurking in the caves of Afghanistan: an ideological erosion of free speech.
An encroachment on free speech is a fundamental security concern because “If you can’t speak freely about a threat,” Reaboi contends, “you can’t analyze it accurately. And if you can’t analyze it, you can’t understand it. And it you can’t understand it, you can’t win.” This argument became the central organizing logic guiding the authors’ counterterrorism efforts.
While reactions to free speech like those provoked by the Danish controversy used to be reserved for more totalitarian regimes, the speakers show that similar trends are presenting in the U.S. today. It began after the Obama administration inverted the classic understanding of incitement. Historically, those incited to violence were responsible for violence they committed. But, like the blame that the Obama administration showered on a filmmaker for provoking the Benghazi attacks, the narrative is now flipped: if someone incites others to violence, it is the inciter’s fault.
Bearing all the responsibility of a word’s impacts—even if violence is incited against the speaker—goes against traditional American jurisprudence. Even so, this standard has permeated mainstream reasoning so deeply that, Shideler notes, “people no longer try to make arguments” for the inciter’s absolute culpability. It is just assumed.
The Obama administration also pushed for an understanding of free speech that treated extremism—of any kind—as a threat. Transforming counterterrorism into counter-extremism caused the government to care less about what is believed and more about the degree to which it is believed. Thus, organizations can actively support Hamas without regulation, but classic American patriotism is harmful. Inverting the incitement narrative ultimately conflates “terrorism as free speech and free speech as terrorism.”
To keep tabs on the erosion of free speech, Reaboi recommends that we watch academic and media climates. Academia provides a forecast for percolating ideas that will eventually flow into mainstream circulation. “The crazier and more totalitarian the idea and the rhetoric,” Reaboi observes, “the more comprehensively it will permeate through culture at some point.”’
The media is another outlet for gauging the state of free speech. Because the media consolidates ideologies, the current weaponization of wokeness and labels reveals a destructive forecast.
Already, there is evidence that the ability of reporters to tell the truth is tightly restricted. Renowned reporters and editors are afraid for their reputations, refusing to cover certain topics with sticking stigma. Reaboi recounts the instance where he tried to publish an article with the Dallas Morning News, a media source with whom he had previously worked. Although he cited only articles in the Dallas Morning News as evidence in his article, they still refused to publish him. The newspaper’s refusal was based solely on the content of Reaboi’s work: The Holy Land Foundation trial. Reaboi concludes that “they were far more concerned with speech against jihadists than speech by jihadists.” His example, unfortunately, is the norm.
Another tactic the media uses to censor reporters and outlets they disagree with is the pretense of “disinformation.” The media often dismisses nonconformists as unreliable sources, and if they can monopolize truth, it will be impossible to challenge them. Russia, for example, is often used to arouse fear of foreign influence while the media allows other foreign influencers to operate unscathed. “The rules of censorship,” the authors observe, “are never applied the same.”
These examples highlight the crux of the problem: without free speech, we cannot ascertain the truth and actually protect people. “This is why,” Reaboi remarks, “everyone’s opinion, no matter how objectionable, deserves a fair hearing.” Without this diversity of thought and word, it becomes much harder to actually “find the bad guys.” Feelings and identities might be hurt along the road to truth, but they are a lesser sacrifice in the fight against terrorism than the lives of people of all identities.
How do those committed to free speech resist its demise? The authors offer three interlocking solutions: be honest with yourself, support reporters you trust, and help ensure reliable networks of communication between supporters and audiences. Even though these conservative networks will be small to begin with, others who support the suppression of free speech will see that “their isolated conservative neighbors are not necessarily crazy.” By surrounding yourself with trustworthy people who speak freely, by supporting others who speak the truth without fear, this small group of resistors will keep the flame of free speech burning.