Rejecting the “free speech” frame

Free speech is under attack. Again. At least it is according to the U.S. right.

From “wokeness” and “cancel culture” to “content moderation,” there seems to always be a new “attack” on free speech. In this view, censorship occurs daily and right-wing actors are the only one who seems to stand up for “free speech” and against “censorship.”

People like Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, or Elon Musk will often talk about “free speech” while at the same time taking actions against speech that they don’t like. Trump created his own platform that allegedly prohibits discussing certain topics like January 6; DeSantis’ so-called “Stop WOKE Act” was even called “positively dystopian” by a judge due to its attempt to censor speech; Musk champions “free speech” on Twitter by removing content that he personally does not like. The U.S. right’s discourse around “free speech” is not about the First Amendment at all. It must be recognized as a hypocritical talking point to gain power over public discourse — over what is okay to be said and what is not, who is allowed to talk and who is not.

This is hardly new. Countless academic papers, reports, journalistic articles, as well as online rants have been written about the right’s pick-and-choose interpretation of “free speech.” Justice Elena Kagan even highlighted that the First Amendment was being “weaponized.”

The key point is not that the right’s interpretation is wrong. Of course it is. But it’s not only wrong and hypocritical; more importantly, it’s strategic.

We must understand the U.S. right’s usage of “free speech” not as an invitation to a legal discussion or a conversation around content moderation. “Free speech” is a frame. And it’s as much about the word as about what it implies.

Frames, according to Robert M. Entman, consist of a problem definition, the identification of a cause, a moral judgment, and then a solution. By making “cancel culture” about “free speech” rather than the speech act that prompted the outrage, the problem definition shifts: The issue at heart is no longer the speech act but that people are outraged by it, and that people are getting “censored.” This, too, affects the cause: Instead of racism, sexism, or white supremacy, we are now thinking about questions like: Should social media allow people to rile each other up? And with that, the culprit changes: It is no longer the person who might get “cancelled” but rather the affected groups who are to blame. The frame is so effective because the usage is so cynical: Who could — morally — ever be against free speech?

The key part for journalists, then, is that there needs to be an understanding of what this constant conversation on the right around “free speech” really is, and how they leverage it for their own aims. It not only reflects the steady radicalization of the U.S. right and the disturbing shift of the Overton Window (e.g., Tucker Carlson’s promotion of the Great Replacement conspiracy theory and the lack of pushback from conservatives). It also highlights a concerted effort to position the “free speech” frame prominently into the public discourse. According to the media database MediaCloud, the label “free speech” has been used over 190,000 times since 2016 by right-wing media outlets; in comparison, media outlets from the center and the left have used the label around 109,000 and 140,000 times. This graph shows that right-wing media outlets have started giving it much more prominence since 2020; since January 2020, the right-wing media (~114,000) has talked about “free speech” more than left (~65,000) and center (~55,000) combined.

Source: MediaCloud

This represents a deliberate attempt to shift the conversation. Conservatives are strategically trying to reframe conversations calling out problematic speech into conversations about “censorship.” Journalists need to be aware of this strategic reframing and act accordingly when covering this discourse. This can take the form of decisions on whether to report on a story, how to quote people using the “free speech” frame, how to contextualize the statements, or to who to give a voice to shine a light on who is being excluded by the usage of the frame. Journalists must understand that “freedom of speech” has been a topic on the right for years and that claims of censorship have been voiced consistently on- and offline. Journalists need to reject this “free speech” framing and contextualize what’s actually being talked about, why it is not a First Amendment violation, and what type of speech the right is defending.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t care or discuss issues such as “cancel culture” or social media platforms’ policies — we should. We should also push back on governmental overreach on freedom of expression and be cautious of potential chilling effects. But we should press for an honest debate, and journalists in particular shouldn’t fall victim to the right’s often dishonest use of the “free speech” frame. Because then the debate is lost before it begins.

Jonas Kaiser is an assistant professor for journalism at Suffolk University and faculty associate at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.

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