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A look at Parler and the tension between free speech and speech you might hate

Court rulings and social media have “flipped the script” on which political ideology champions free speech, and an alternative to Twitter has taken advantage.

Conservatives seeking to find solidarity on Twitter alternative Parler may also find things they’d rather not see there, like white supremacy, profanity and obscene images.

Parler founder John Matze has acknowledged that unsavory content comes with the platform’s commitment to freedom of expression, telling The Wall Street Journal that, in particular, “Those QAnon people, they creep me out.”

In addressing the issue, Matze brought attention to the built-in tension that confronts conservatives who try to plant a flag as the champions of free speech in the U.S. As legal scholar Wayne Batchis wrote in 2016, “Free speech is enraging. It is degrading. It is frightening and shocking. It means having one’s most cherished beliefs dragged through the proverbial mud.”

It’s also one of five rights guaranteed under the Constitution’s First Amendment, and it is cited with religious fervor by people who have set up accounts on Parler, the social media platform launched two years ago. Conservative podcaster and Parler investor Dan Bongino, for example, posted about free speech on the platform multiple times this week, one time saying, “Totalitarians hate free speech. So do liberals.”

That’s a generalization that isn’t completely true, said Batchis, an associate professor at the University of Delaware and author of “The Right’s First Amendment: The Politics of Free Speech & the Return of Conservative Libertarian. But research by Batchis has shown that over the past half-century, conservatives and liberals have “flipped the script” when it comes to free speech, both in politics and in the judiciary.

“There is undeniably a group on the left that is moving away from this position, that is more willing to silence speech,” Batchis said. Parler, by appealing to conservatives who believe their voices are being silenced by Facebook and Twitter, is taking advantage of that change.

In this Nov. 2, 2020 file photo, Ivanka Trump speaks at a campaign event while her father, President Donald Trump, watches in Kenosha, Wis.
Morry Gash, Associated Press

A higher standard?

Parler is a youngster in a new medium undergoing growing pains, including ongoing scrutiny of Facebook, Twitter and Google by Congress with regard to antitrust laws.

Some of the the biggest critics of the big tech companies, including Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, are users of Parler and have encouraged people to set up accounts on the platform. President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka joined two weeks ago.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Parler’s leading investor was Rebekah Mercer, a trustee of the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation whose family has reportedly provided financing for many conservative endeavors including Breitbart News and the Media Research Center. Parler is based in Henderson, Nevada.

Matze did not respond to an interview request, but the Parler website says that its policies are “viewpoint-neutral” and “foster a community of individuals who tolerate the expression of all non-violent ideas.”

The company promises users a “higher ethical standard” and says it will not sell user data. Parler requires a phone number to set up an account, and an ID and selfie for verified accounts.

Parler also monitors posts, though the company says this is done “minimally” through community jurors. Parler says it “will not knowingly allow itself to be used as a tool for crime, civil torts, or other unlawful acts.” Some content posted on Tuesday could be seen as inciting violence, such as a user who wrote “CIA and the FBI needs to be blown up!”

Batchis notes that the tech companies, being private, can leave up — or take down — whatever they want on their sites.

“There’s something of a misunderstanding, I believe, that a private platform like Twitter or Facebook and now Parler has obligation to adhere to the First Amendment. They don’t. They’re private,” he said.

“That doesn’t mean there might not be a valid argument that should protect free speech interests, that this is a value independent of what the Constitution says, but as a private entity, they don’t have an obligation to include anyone’s speech they don’t want to include on their site.”

User controls

Conservative anger at social media companies has been growing since the 2016 election, said Dan Gainor, vice president of TechWatch at the Media Research Center, a nonprofit based in Reston, Virginia, that tracks incidents of censorship on the website Censortrack.org.

“Every day we’re finding some prominent conservative being restricted. A lot of it is really ridiculous, like, ‘Oh, we didn’t like the photo you posted of you with a gun,’” Gainor said, adding that other examples of at least temporary restriction by Facebook include a portion of the Declaration of Independence and an image of Santa Claus kneeling before the infant Jesus.

When the first social platforms emerged more than a decade ago, they were free speech havens, Gainor said, and “it was by and large positive interaction, things that normal people talk about in a bar. And we weren’t restricted.”

Over time, however, Facebook and Twitter began to increasingly block or reduce distribution of posts the companies said were in violation of their content policies, and conservatives say they are disproportionately affected, although there is conflicting data on that contention. And the emergent “cancel culture” made matters worse, making people afraid of saying anything that might be misinterpreted or enrage a mob. “The combination has restricted free speech horrifically,” Gainor said.

As a condition of her investment, Mercer required that Parler allow users to control what they see, the Wall Street Journal reported. The platform gives users options to mute, approve or deny questionable content in their feeds.

Gainor, who has a presence on both Twitter and Parler, said he understands concern about people not wanting to find offensive posts on their feeds, but he believes this can be solved with user settings.

“You run into the problem that many social conservatives, myself included, don’t want to see what they used to say in Monty Python, naughty bits. That’s the price of freedom right now. I’d rather run into that occasionally than know that the political speech I want to see is being censored,” he said, adding “I’m not going to run screaming from seeing something I disagree with.”

“We used to live in a country that believed more speech was better speech. Now we’ve got at least one full generation, maybe more, who were raised in this safe-space idea.”

‘A dramatic reversal’

Batchis, at the University of Delaware, confirms that there has been a change in how free speech is defended, going back more than 50 years. He has studied Supreme Court decisions along with mentions of free speech in the conservative magazine National Review and concluded that there has been a “dramatic reversal” in political ideology and free speech.

Conservatives were less likely to defend free speech in the 1950s and 1960s when they were concerned about communism and anti-Vietnam protests, he said.

“There was also a period of time when it was not only concerns about communism, but also concerns about morality that drove the right on free-speech issues. They saw a robust protection of free speech as a risk to so-called family values and the ability to control or restrain the distribution of pornography and other kinds of expression thought to be harmful to morality.”

While there are still some conservatives wary of free speech, and liberals who champion it, there are many examples of the sea change that has occurred on the topic, including the 1969 decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio, in which the Supreme Court gave protection to speech unless it can be proven to incite “imminent lawless action.” The case gave rise to what is known today as the “clear and present danger standard.”

“What isn’t often discussed is that the Brandenburg decision dealt with noxious, racist speech at a Klan rally, but it was perceived, in protecting this horrible, racist speech, as a liberal decision, which is interesting in light of today, when a large part of the left has moved in favor of prohibiting hate speech,” Batchis said.

An illustration of the shift on the right, he said, is R.A.V. v. St. Paul, a 1992 case involving a cross burning, in which the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority in defending free speech, no matter how offensive. That decision, Batchis said, “was when it really became apparent that the scripts had flipped.”

He believes that there were multiple catalysts for the change. “One was the concern about so-called political correctness, starting in the ’80s and ’90s, this idea that certain speech was off limits. This is something that has come back today and is now known as cancel culture.”

The other was the realization that the First Amendment could be “something of a deregulatory tool” that could benefit businesses and political campaigns. “The very fact that we see pharmaceutical ads today is the result of the (Supreme) Court’s movement on commercial speech,” Batchis said.

As for the future of conservatives on Parler, Batchis suggests that they remember the American Civil Liberties Union has described its mission as “protecting the speech we hate.”

“I think conservatives need to be aware that free speech is a double-edged sword,” he said.

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