A heritage of free speech
Our Dual Heritage Series
Jewish Family Education with Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer
On July 16, syndicated talk radio host Dennis Prager testified at a U.S. Senate hearing about the growing restrictions on free speech online.
“This is the biggest threat in the history of the republic,” Prager explained to news media, “because there’s only one (online) conduit of any significance to free speech, and that’s Google.”
Controlling 92 percent of worldwide searches, the tech giant claims to be “a neutral public forum, but it acts like a publisher with editorial control,” Prager noted. Social media platforms, including YouTube, Facebook, and
Twitter are coming under similar attacks for selective censorship.
Commentators, legislators, and social scientists are starting to raise questions as well.
“Many argue that the platforms are unfairly banning and restricting access to potentially valuable speech,” writes legislative attorney Valerie Brannon. “Some have expressed concern that these sites are not doing enough to counter violent or false speech.”
And still others have begun to observe and document internet media’s worrisome potential for emotional hijacking and mind control, including manipulation of voter preferences, undermining the very premise of free speech.
Broadly described, freedom of speech is the right to express opinions and ideas without censorship, retaliation, or legal action. It equally implies the right to have access to and receive information. The ACLU adds that free speech also means protecting diversity of thought.
Clearly, speech itself is a central theme in Judaism. The very world itself was created with speech, “Let there be…” The story of humans and later that of the Israelites is advanced with speech.
The Bible even offers a number of examples of free speech. Abraham challenges God over the injustice of destroying the righteous of Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses argues with God at the burning bush about his role in liberating the Israelites. Zelophehad’s unmarried daughters, facing forfeiture of the family’s inheritance for lack of sons, petition the court to allow daughters to inherit.
The Talmud further demonstrates a commitment to free speech through its format of debate. “(E)ach tractate (is) arranged as a manuscript of arguments between rabbis of various academies…recording both majority and minority opinions,” notes rabbinic student Matthew Stone. “The Talmudic legal system is at least as staunchly supportive of the notion of a ‘marketplace of ideas’ as the American system.”
But neither the Bible nor Jewish tradition emphasizes free speech in the American sense.
Judaism, in both text and culture, focuses more on defining conscientious speech and curbing harmful speech: a focus on responsibility rather than rights.
Nearly 2,500 years ago, the ancient Greeks pioneered freedom of speech as a democratic principle. With its political roots in Athens, and inspired by John Locke’s notion of liberty as a natural right, early America readily adopted the notion of free speech.
“The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the invaluable rights of man,” wrote Pennsylvania’s James Wilson, the constitutional framer second only to James Madison. “(E)very citizen may freely speak, write, and print on any subject, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty.”
It wasn’t long before the United States became “the most speech protective of any nation on Earth,” writes Columbia University President Lee Bollinger. With its commitment to free speech principles and legal protections, the U.S. has become the number-one address for those seeking a platform for controversial or political speech or simply free expression.
But does America live up to this foundational principle? A recent national poll by the libertarian Cato Institute found that 71 percent of Americans believe political correctness has silenced important discussions our society needs to have.
Deplatforming speakers with unpopular views — revoking invitations, protests, shout downs — and censoring or even ousting scientists and tenured professors for intolerance or politically incorrect views is prevalent. With escalation into harassment and bullying, overt threats, and cyber terrorism, many are calling for internet intervention and oversight by the government.
Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, warns of more insidious dangers to free speech posed by Big Tech.
Self-described as politically center-left, Epstein has proven that biased rankings of search results (the first ones you see versus those hidden on later pages) have a dramatic impact on consumer attitudes, preferences, and behavior.
In multiple scientific studies of national elections in four countries, undecided voter preferences shifted anywhere from 20 to 63 percent in response to biased search results (which he demonstrated to be 2.6 million voters in favor of Clinton in the last election). Furthermore, search ranking bias can be masked so people are unaware of the manipulation.
Only the first of many discoveries, Epstein’s research has been replicated by other researchers and published by the National Academy of Sciences. In response to these findings, Sen. Ted Cruz noted, “Google has unprecedented control over what people hear, watch, read…a staggering amount of power to ban speech, manipulate search results, destroy rivals, and shape culture.” Who’s in control takes on a whole new meaning.
“Freedom of speech is an ancient Jewish value, as well as a keystone of democracy,” writes Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson. “Even if we find certain speech distasteful or disruptive, we all lose when we attempt to quash such speech.” Rather, we should set aside baseless hatreds and pursue civil discourse in recognition of each other’s humanity.
“If (only Joseph and his brothers) were to have spoken with one another, they would have made peace,” laments rabbi and religious scholar Yonatan Aibshitz. “The main deterrent in every dispute is when there is no communication and one side refuses to listen to the other. If mankind knew how to communicate, they would see there is no basis for dispute.”
As Proverbs 18:21 cautions, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”
Literature to share
Conan Doyle for the Defense by Margalit Fox. Unlike the French political scandal known as the Dreyfus Affair, this true story of a German Jew wrongly convicted of murder in Britain is largely unknown. In this intriguing true-crime tale set in the early 1900s, the famous Sherlock Holmes mystery writer Arthur Conan Doyle applies his method of “rational inquiry” to the real-world case and exonerates the accused. Evocative of a Sherlock Holmes mystery and the best in historical fiction, Fox’s captivating tale of class bias and antisemitism is particularly relevant in modern times.
Where’s the Potty on This Ark? by Kerry Olitzky. This charming addition to the preschool bookshelf cleverly uses the animals of Noah’s ark to explain how there are special places for everything, including using the potty. The simple text and adorable illustrations make the topic fun, and the addition of the Jewish blessing for using the potty is a gentle introduction to the awesomeness of creation and importance of a healthy body. (Note: This is not a story about Noah or the flood itself.) Delightful!