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Imagine that there existed a spray bottle that, when misted in someone’s direction, could render the person silent, or at least make her voice virtually inaudible. Alternatively, imagine that there existed a small megaphone endowed with exceptional powers such that it could amplify a person’s voice loudly enough to be heard hundreds and even thousands of miles away. Moreover, the megaphone could mask the voice of the person speaking, concealing her identity.
If it doesn’t seem too difficult to imagine either of these two inventions, it is because both of them already exist; indeed, versions of the spray bottle and the megaphone have been around for a long time. And yet there has perhaps never been a time when both the figurative megaphone and spray bottle have so powerfully informed the creation, dissemination, and reception of speech. Paradoxically, this has led to a moment where speech is seemingly everywhere and nowhere.
The conceit of the spray bottle embodies the power of authority—political, religious, cultural—to censor speech deemed offensive. The word censor dates back to the office of the Roman magistrate who both undertook the census and oversaw manners and morals, which is to say, he not only counted citizens, but held them to account.
No society lacks such a figure. Even in our own, where speech is constitutionally protected, there are myriad rules and regulations that govern it: hate speech laws, gag orders, consent decrees. The ability to censor speech doesn’t reside solely in the hands of the state; corporations arguably now wield an equally powerful spray bottle because so much speech now finds voice on privately owned platforms.
While the metaphoric spray bottle has been around since at least the time of the Romans, the figurative megaphone dates back to the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. Before the wide distribution of printed books helped create a literate public, most people were unable to read or write; information was conveyed orally, and in many empires, knowledge was a closely held monopoly of a courtly caste of literate scribes. At the same time, in small city states, orators with strong voices could communicate with thousands of people at one time in the ancient Athenian assemblies and courtrooms that comprised the world’s first democracy.
The printing press made feasible the rise of a more or less enlightened public—one precondition of modern liberal regimes that aspire to more or less democratic forms of representative self-government. Meanwhile, in the past generation, the internet has displaced much of the social function served by the printing press, as it allows for the near instantaneous transmission of speech as well as its global dissemination.
With its seemingly infinite number of websites and its various social media platforms, the internet in theory allows anyone to become her own publisher. Traveling at the speed of light and bypassing editors and publishers, speech broadcast via the internet can, in principle, possess an “unfiltered” quality that creates a perception of authenticity, if not reliability. Such ostensibly unmediated speech is shaped by the very medium of its dissemination: for example, “tweets” possess the immediacy of talk, the subtlety of a telegram, and the distorted quality of words shouted into a megaphone.
To mix my metaphors, the megaphone can itself become the spray bottle, drowning out the speech of others.
Social media has quite obviously transformed the landscape for public speech, sometimes algorithmically promoting speech that is incendiary over speech that is considered, and sometimes barring those users of the platform who are judged to be bad actors or surreptitiously “shadow banning” them. These platforms now form an important part of our public sphere, but—like most newspapers, television stations, and radio stations—they are owned by private corporations. Yet even as these corporations regulate—and sometimes censor—the content that appears on their platforms, the companies claim to have no real responsibility for that content owing to a law that exempts websites from the sort of legal liability that traditional publishers and broadcasters face. Companies like Meta are well aware that their platforms have propagated dangerously false information and hateful content, and they have dedicated resources to attempt to censor or limit the flow of the most egregious content posted by users, such as a video live-streamed by a mass shooter on Facebook. Yet social media companies are unlikely to ever seriously address the flaws in their systems for the simple reason that there is a strong financial incentive to amplifying outrageous speech.
The problems around speech go deeper than the regulations of technology platforms. This is in part because what constitutes speech—and thus, in the United States, deserves Constitutional protection—is not always clear. Symbolic acts, such as burning a flag, have been deemed to be protected, but as this particular example might suggest, the divide between the real and symbolic is not always clear-cut; a protest against the state may also be a fire hazard. Moreover, the First Amendment protects the free speech rights of an individual, but what if the speaker isn’t a “person” in any obvious sense? Do texts or utterances produced by intelligent machines qualify as speech? Should language, including political propaganda, generated by AI chatbots be regarded as speech deserving protection?
When the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United that corporate political campaign contributions constituted a form of speech protected by the First Amendment, they implicitly validated the capitalist supposition that spending money is an entirely legitimate form of self-expression, which itself cannot be distinguished from persuasion.
Money and speech do have something in common—they both facilitate networks of exchange, which themselves are often dependent upon one another—but there is an obvious difference in how they are distributed throughout our society. And when it comes to political campaigns that rely heavily on paid advertisements broadcast through the mediums of radio, television, and social media, money from large donors and corporations drown out the speech of those that lack the wherewithal to access these media channels. Talk is cheap, and rightly so, but actually being heard can be expensive.
In the Citizens United ruling, the court concluded that “there is no such thing as too much speech,” but by so directly equating the right to political speech with the ability to spend money they were also intimating that there’s no such thing as too much money in politics.
The ruling exemplified a vein of libertarianism running through the Supreme Court that threatens to curtail our collective liberty even while paying lip service to individual rights. As some legal commentators have pointed out, the Supreme Court’s recent rulings pertaining to the Second Amendment, which broadly empower citizens to carry firearms in public, threaten not just the collective welfare of citizens but their rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. I’d suggest that this particularly noxious threat to free speech can itself be traced back to the court’s overly broad interpretation of speech in Citizens United. If money can be a kind of speech, so can the threat of violence; thus so-called Second Amendment rights advocates mistakenly believe that their appearance in public in full tactical gear brandishing firearms is a meaningful form of self-expression, rather than a challenge to our collective liberty intended to enforce a fearful silence.
Our culture’s fetishizing of self-expression, apparently without any limits, is paradoxically undermining free speech. It sometimes seems as if citizens are deliberately constructing a Tower of Babel, in which the public sphere is turned into a chaotic exchange of shouted assertions and weaponized symbols, amplified ad nauseum.
Shouldn’t our laws do more to encourage and protect speech that leads to more conversation rather than simply drowns out or silences the voices of others? Let’s not let the megaphone morph into the spray bottle.
Peter Nohrnberg’s poem “A Backward Look” will appear in a forthcoming issue of Notre Dame Review.