How Twitter Killed Free Speech

By
Tim Wu
October 30, 2017

This piece was published for The New York Times by Tim Wu, a Knight Institute Emerging Threats author, based on his paper for the Emerging Threats series. The views expressed are those of the author. 


You need not be a media historian to notice that we live in a golden age of press harassment, domestic propaganda and coercive efforts to control political debate. The Trump White House repeatedly seeks to discredit the press, threatens to strip broadcasters of their licenses and calls for the firing of journalists and football players for speaking their minds. A foreign government tries to hack our elections, and journalists and public speakers are regularly attacked by vicious, online troll armies whose aim is to silence opponents.

In this age of “new” censorship and blunt manipulation of political speech, where is the First Amendment? Americans like to think of it as the great protector of the press and of public debate. Yet it seems to have become a bit player, confined to a narrow and often irrelevant role. It is time to ask: Is the First Amendment obsolete? If so, what can be done?

These questions arise because the jurisprudence of the First Amendment was written for a different set of problems in a very different world. The First Amendment was ignored for much of American history, coming to life only in the 1920s thanks to the courage of judges like Learned Hand, Louis Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Courts and civil libertarians used the amendment to protect speakers from government prosecution and censorship as it was practiced in the 20th century, such as the arrest of pamphleteers and the seizure of anarchist newspapers by the Postal Service.

But in the 21st century, censorship works differently, as the writer and academic Zeynep Tufekci has illustrated. The complete suppression of dissenting speech isn’t feasible in our “cheap speech” era. Instead, the world’s most sophisticated censors, including Russia and China, have spent a decade pioneering tools and techniques that are better suited to the internet age. Unfortunately, those new censorship tools have become unwelcome imports in the United States, with catastrophic results for our democracy.