The second impeachment trial of Donald Trump has begun this week amid a nation still reeling from the insurgent attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Trump is charged with having incited that violence through weeks of rhetoric by falsely claiming the election had been stolen from him.

I'll  leave it for another day to debate the merits of this impeachment — is it an important act of accountability, or political kabuki theater?

But one of the key aspects of this impeachment trial is the question of free speech: Did Trump —through his false claims of a stolen election and his fiery speech to the crowd on Jan. 6, just before they stormed the capitol building — incite the violence, or was he merely exercising his right of freedom of speech?

As a journalist, I'm keenly interested in the issues of free speech and its companion, freedom of the press. America is unique in its history of free speech even when that speech challenges government leaders and official orthodoxy.

But in our era of rabid social media rants, false "news" and hyper-partisan rhetoric, free speech is being strained, weighed down by extremists on both the left and the right.

So how are we supposed to think about — and judge — the merits of free speech amid a sewer flow of misinformation, fake conspiracies and political extremism?

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Like all of our Constitutional freedoms, there are limits to freedom of speech.

You can't defame or libel someone with false allegations. You can't shout "fire" in a crowded room and cause a stampede that could kill people. You can't incite violence.

But the devil's in the details. The false allegations about a "stolen" election is a good example.

It's one thing to say you believe an election was unfair or rigged — that may be your opinion.

But it's another thing to falsely allege an individual or a company rigged an election.

While you may have the right to make such an allegation in public, you also have to be willing to pay the consequences for spreading false claims that defame firms or individuals. (That's the case behind the massive lawsuit against Fox News from an election technology vendor.)

And although we focus a lot on political speech, there's also limits to non-political speech.

In a private company, one person can't sexually harass another with lewd comments and then claim they're just exercising free speech. You can be a jerk, but you can also be sued for harassment, or fired.

Free speech does have guardrails.

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I often hear from readers who are concerned about "censorship," especially if I reject printing something they want published.

While we've been pretty open about letting people speak their minds in guest columns and letters to the editor, we do reject those where we know the person is saying something that is false or that is libelous. 

"You're censoring me," is often the reply.

No, I'm not. Censorship is something governments do, not private companies like newspapers.

If the government says you can't publish something — think Pentagon Papers — that's censorship. If a newspaper or website refuses to print or distribute something, that's editorial judgment and their right as a private company.

That's the issue today as some social media giants like Twitter, Facebook and others have "de-platformed" Trump and others from using their services to spread false claims of election fraud. Those behind the whacky QAnon conspiracies have also been removed from many social media sites, as have those calling for political violence.

None of that is censorship. Twitter has the right to allow, or disallow, access from anyone to its distribution system. Ditto for this newspaper. Nobody can demand we publish something and it's not censorship if we decline to print it.

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For most of human history, information — news, opinions and politics — was vetted through cultural and social gatekeepers. Sometimes that was through an established social hierarchy, such as a system of elders in Indian tribes who were the keepers of wisdom.

Other times, it was through social institutions, such as the church.

Later, in the era of mass media, the gatekeepers were editors and publishers and producers who decided what got aired and what didn't.

There were some good things about that system. For the most part, that kind of vetting filtered out extremism, cultism and the flakey nuts.

But it also constrained the flow of information and ideas. Back when many people couldn't read, the church controlled much of what society knew and believed. Some of that, such as the denial that the earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around, was false and society suffered by the limited flow of scientific advances. Thus, the era of the Enlightenment dawned, much to the dismay of those who had previously ruled society.

Today, the explosion of social media has opened the way for anyone at any time to say whatever they want and to spread whatever views, real or false, they want to disseminate. 

In theory, that open-door of free thought should make us all smarter and more informed. Today's marketplace of ideas is vast.

But in reality, that marketplace has had the opposite effect.

We're so flooded by information and propaganda, and so manipulated by how algorithms selectively feed us a diet of what we want to see, that we've become dumber as a society.

People who should know better have gotten caught up in nutty conspiracy theories and false information from social media. Too many of us exist in a bubble where we only see and read those items that reinforce our biases, filtering out all other conflicting data.

That's how ISIS, QAnon and violent white supremacy groups are able to recruit followers  into their cults. 

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There's another aspect to how social media has influenced our free speech; the elevation of "stupid" to the level of experts.

There was a time when our society respected the opinions of experts and those trained in specific fields. 

No longer, as we've witnessed all too painfully during the Covid pandemic where doctors' opinions have been dismissed by some political leaders. (Drink bleach?)

We've also seen that with the antivaxx movement that is organized on social media and that spreads false, sometimes dangerous, ideas based on fake medical information.

But it's not just medical opinions that have been tossed into the trash on social media, it's other ideas as well.

Because everything and everyone is "equal" in space on social media, all opinions are considered equal. The guy sitting in his basement pontificating about politics is equal on social media to a reporter in Washington D.C. who has dozens of sources with firsthand information.

In reality, the two opinions are not equally valid, but on social media, they often carry the same weight.

Ideas are not all equal and that we now treat them as mere digital commodities is a danger to the political health of our country.

The source of information does matter and is a reflection on the validity of the information itself.

Social media promotes the opposite idea, that the source of information doesn't matter.

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But the problem isn't just social media, nor does it come just from the right wing of our political landscape.

Free speech has become a hot topic on the political left, especially on college campuses where leftist extremism has sometimes run amuck.

There is a theory on the left that people should have "safe zones" where they don't have to be exposed to ideas, thoughts or opinions that they find "offensive."

But who decides what's "offensive" and what's just the free flow of ideas? 

From that has arisen the idea of the "cancel culture" where someone whose ideas don't conform, or someone who says something controversial, are "canceled" via social shunning or attacks on their employment or status. The person is, in effect, "canceled" because of something they said.

This can happen anywhere on the political spectrum, but is largely an artifact of the extreme political left where conformity to ideological purity is valued above all else. 

The left knows, however, that words matter. Words do have an impact and can lead to the kind of events of Jan. 6.

But should we seek to control those words through laws or "cancel culture," as many on the left want? 

•••

Free speech is perhaps the most valuable of our rights as American citizens.

But over the last few years, free speech has been weaponized by radicals on all sides of the political spectrum as a bludgeon through which to disseminate false information and as a tool for political and social manipulation.

The Big Lie — that the Nov. 3 election was stolen — was nothing more than false propaganda. But it was told so loudly by so many that it became "truth" even though it was fake and false.

What do we as a society do about that? How do we keep our freedom of speech in place, but filter out fakery? What role do the mega social media companies have in policing that — should they and can they?

We cherish our freedom of speech, yet it's being hijacked by extremists to shackle our society to a false narrative of reality. Facts and truth are dismissed in favor of ideology.

If we can't find a way to tamp down this flood of propaganda, conspiracy theories and political extremism, those things will eventually drown out all other voices.

If those who attacked the nation's capitol on Jan. 6 were in charge, all of those who challenged their views would be silenced.

I used to believe that facts would win the day; that in the marketplace of ideas, truth would expose false narratives; that voices of reason would outshine the voices of extremism; that in the end, truth and facts would matter and the core of our democracy would hold.

I'm not so sure any more. In the marketplace of ideas, the crazies are winning.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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