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Free Speech Theory

Understanding the Controversies


Edited By Helen J. Knowles and Brandon T. Metroka

The rallying cry of "Free speech!" has long served as a touchstone for liberals and conservatives, alike, engaged in political polarization conflict and discourse. The democratization of media and the feverish pitch of political polarization, however, have contributed to the weaponization of free expression. From Colin Kaepernick to "fake news," boycotts of partisan television programming to removals of Confederate monuments, internet neutrality to the silencing of college professors and all points between, citizens and pundits all too frequently wield the slogan of "Free speech!" as the sword and shield of political discourse. Oftentimes, ironically they do so with little regard for the views of their opponents. As a result, society risks trading a substantive value for an empty slogan or, far worse, blind authority.To rediscover the underlying assumptions and social values served by free expression, and to move current controversies beyond rhetorical flourishes, Helen J. Knowles and Brandon T. Metroka assemble an impressive group of legal and political scholars to address one overarching question: "Why should we value free speech?" Through analyses of several recent controversies invoking concerns for free expression, the contributors to this volume make complex political theory accessible, informative, and entertaining. Beginning with internet neutrality and ending with an overview of developing free expression controversies in comparable western democracies, experts reestablish the link between free expression and the underlying values it may serve. In doing so, this volume unearths values previously unexamined in our modern—but increasingly impoverished and bitter—political discourse.

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3. Free Speech, Free Press, and Fake News: What if the Marketplace of Ideas Isn’t About Identifying Truth? (Keith J. Bybee and Laura E. Jenkins)


3. Free Speech, Free Press, and Fake News: What if the Marketplace of Ideas Isn’t About Identifying Truth?

Keith J. Bybee and Laura E. Jenkins

In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, the world of American politics seemed to turn upside down. This was not because the prominent Democratic political consultant John Podesta actually orchestrated a ring of pedophiles, or because Hillary Clinton really arranged the sale of military-grade weapons to ISIS, or even because Pope Francis, in fact, endorsed Donald Trump. Politics appeared topsy-turvy because fake news about Podesta, Clinton, the Pope, and many other public figures inundated public discussion and often overwhelmed the real news.1 The completely fabricated article proclaiming the Pope had endorsed Trump was the most widely shared story on Facebook during the last three months of the 2016 presidential election.2 And the most popular fake news stories were more widely shared on Facebook than the most popular true news stories.3 Like moths to a flame, cursors and eyeballs swiftly flew toward a blaze of lies, and democracy was singed.

Fake news stories are not, of course, anything new. From posthumous slanders against the Roman Emperor Justinian4 to mid-nineteenth-century newspaper stories trumpeting the existence of giant blue-skinned man-bats on the Moon,5 misinformation (i.e., false information deliberately intended to deceive6) has long plagued news reporting in all its forms.

For many people, however, the tsunami of misinformation flooding the media today represents an unprecedented problem....

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