On Violence, Social Media, and Freedom of Speech

Earlier this month, Jerad and Amanda Miller killed two police officers while the officers were eating lunch in Las Vegas, NV. Subsequently, there was no shortage of outcry against police accountability groups, who were accused of fomenting hatred and violence against law enforcement, and in some sense, encouraging the heinous actions of people like the Millers.

The concern is not entirely misguided; Christopher Cantwell published a nonsensical and egregious article on Copblock.org about how the killing was justified merely because the victims were police officers, and therefore members of an oppressive class. Shortly thereafter, Cop Block removed Mr. Cantwell’s article, as well as his access and privileges as an editor/regular poster. Several administrators at Cop Block issued this statement in explanation of the decision.

These events have raised a familiar debate with respect to freedom of speech and instigation of violence, and once again, there have been calls for restriction, bans, and/or regulations on freedom of speech. In the past, the target of such restrictions have been the written word, or soap box speeches; in the age of technology, the new target (scapegoat) is social medial.

While use of social media certainly poses concerns for instigation of violence, freedom of speech is a fundamental right. Even the Supreme Court (which is not infrequently the foe of liberty)  has upheld these rights subject to the test of whether the lawless action is imminent, intentional, and likely to be carried out. This concept is well-accepted because ideas are powerful but ultimately intangible; individuals are responsible for their own actions.

The use of social media for discussion and news is invaluable to freedom. This is particularly the case when major news outlets consistently publish the perspective of the hegemony on matters of politics, war, corruption, police crimes, social justice, etc. Rarely does one encounter a news product of the mainstream media that actually has interviewed the victim, the victim’s family, or even eyewitnesses to heinous police brutalityThe vast majority of articles reporting on police crimes paraphrase police statements and police reports with no apparent investigation. For this reason, social media such as blogs, Twitter, and Facebook can provide an additional perspective on these matters, though occasionally, messages like Cantwell’s unfortunately make it into the mix.

Christopher Cantwell, the Millers, and their vile lunacy are a distraction from the issue. In looking to Supreme Court rulings on First Amendment rights, the cases are littered with similarly deranged individuals of all types – KKK leaders, communists, angry religious loonies ranting on street corners, etc. At the heart of all these cases was not whether their message was valid or just (in many cases it was not), but whether they had a right to express themselves under those circumstances, without restraint.

Society does not ban hammers, kitchen knives, or automobiles, all of which are essential tools for daily life, merely because in some instances, they cause great danger, injury, and even death. Similarly, there should be no call for restriction or regulation on social media merely because sometimes, some mentally unsound people, misuse otherwise legitimate and essential tools for a free existence.

Thus, the issue is not whether there might be some negative consequences of individual action that may or may not stem from influence by social media and the spread of information – because crazy people will always do crazy things, with or without social media. The issue is whether there will be any truth left in this world without social media as a platform for the expression of ideas by disenfranchised people, silenced victims, and by non-government-approved, non-corporate, non-crony, sources.

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  1. While I think this article raises very important points, I disagree with the author calling communists ‘similarly deranged individuals’ in comparison to The Millers , and Cantwell. Although some communist movements have been violent, most communists as individuals are not violent and communism as a political belief is not inherently violent.

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