Before she targets speech that hurts her fee fees…how about criminalizing documented fraudulent claims of one’s ancestry that were used for personal gain?
Elizabeth Warren has a plan for that. And by “that,” I mean a chilling crackdown on free speech in the name of combating disinformation online.
On Wednesday, the 2020 candidate released a plan that would impose criminal and civil penalties on those who are deemed guilty of spreading “disinformation.” In a tweet unveiling the plan, she said, “Disinformation and online foreign interference erode our democracy, and Donald Trump has invited both.” The Massachusetts Democrat continued, “Anyone who seeks to challenge and defeat Donald Trump in the 2020 election must be fully prepared to take this on—and I’ve got a plan to do it.”
There is a real issue with people believing fake or misleading information they see online. And it is true that Russian actors exploited this trend in an attempt to sway or at least influence people’s thinking during the 2016 presidential election, even though there’s little evidence they actually made any difference (beyond getting a few thousand clicks on odd Jesus-themed pro-Trump memes and other silly content).
But criminalizing “misinformation"? That’s the stance of a dictator seeking to squash dissent, not a candidate trying to win over voters earnestly.
Warren’s multipage “disinformation” plan does include some stuff that’s reasonable enough.
For instance, she says she will hold her campaign to high standards and not allow the dissemination of any “fake news” or misinformation. That’s a good thing. (Although, Warren should start by addressing the misinformation she herself has spread throughout her entire campaign about implementing “Medicare for all” without raising taxes on the middle class.) Warren also calls on big tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter to make changes voluntarily (at least for now).
That’s fine, but here’s where things really get wild. In a portion of the plan labeled “Governor actions to address disinformation,” Warren promises to “create civil and criminal penalties for knowingly disseminating false information about when and how to vote in U.S. elections.”
In other words, Warren wants to criminalize the spread of information the government deems to be false. This unconstitutional proposal not only flies in the face of the First Amendment and core constitutional principles of free expression, but it’s also ripe for abuse.
This isn’t the first time Warren has pursued policies that seemingly ignore the First Amendment. She has openly endorsed a “lobbying tax” that sure looks like a blatantly unconstitutional attempt to stifle a constitutionally protected right. As far as this latest anti-speech proposal goes, it is nearly guaranteed to be used to stifle political speech, even if Warren does say that, for now, it will only apply to disinformation about voting in elections.
Once we open this door, government censorship will inevitably creep beyond just saying elections are on the wrong day or that would-be censors in power will stretch the definition of “election misinformation” to include political predictions and commentary they dislike.
Like it or not, a consequence of free and open debate is that people will have the right to say untrue or misleading things. But the proper response is to answer them in kind and take them on in an open marketplace of ideas, not embrace censorship.
What’s really scary is not misleading memes on Facebook. It’s that an actual, mainstream Democratic politician such as Warren is openly advocating for making the government the final arbiter of truth and criminalizing speech she doesn’t like.