The First Amendment on Trial, Part I
Introducing… the Censorship Industrial Complex
Sometime in the next six months — probably sooner rather than later — the U.S. Supreme Court will decide its most consequential case in years.
And no, it has nothing to do with the 2024 election.
Your right to free expression online is riding on this case — including your right to merely express an opinion about the economy, or your concerns about the markets.
That’s not hyperbole. We know this because of what happened last March when Silicon Valley Bank collapsed.
On the Sunday night that the Federal Reserve and the Treasury were hatching a make-it-up-as-we-go-along rescue plan… Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Kentucky) tweeted the following.
We know who that senator is. And how he explained himself.
If you’re worried about the state of free speech in these United States, it won’t make you feel any better. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…
Rewind to August 2018 — when professional loudmouth Alex Jones was simultaneously “deplatformed” by Facebook, YouTube, Apple and Spotify on the theory he was engaged in “hate speech.”
At the risk of appearing alarmist, I devoted an entire edition of this e-letter to the topic, titled, “After Alex Jones, Are We Next?”
As the independent journalist Michael Tracey observed in 2021, “If you were under any illusion back in 2018 that this would ever stop with Jones — a figure believed to be sufficiently repulsive that any punishment doled out to him would not have broader implications for the average internet user — well, it didn’t take long for proof of just how wrong you were.”
By now it’s become an annual tradition for us to revisit and update the matter in early August. As Massie’s tweet above suggests, the matter has become both urgent and dire.
The first 18 months of the censorship campaign were mostly confined to instances of “hate speech” like Jones’ — speech that allegedly would inspire acts of violence against someone based on skin color, sexual orientation, etc.
For anyone who raised an objection, the Establishment had a standard response: These are private companies. They have every right to determine who gets to play in their sandbox.
Bollocks. These private companies were acting under duress. Time after time, executives were raked over the proverbial coals at congressional hearings for their alleged failure to curb “hate speech” and “misinformation.”
In 2018, we cited Reason writer Zach Weissmueller: “Washington sees in Silicon Valley a chance to control speech in a way never before possible under the First Amendment, and to roll back the clock to a pre-internet age of media gatekeepers.
“The way to achieve this is by continually leveraging the threat of regulation.”
Worked flawlessly: Haul a tech exec before Congress, give him the third degree for a day, watch him fold like a lawn chair a few weeks or months later. Lather, rinse, repeat.
And then came COVID.
Weeks before lockdown came to America in March of 2020, “misinformation” about the virus was already cause for suspension on Twitter.
By the summer of 2021, the White House freely acknowledged it was “flagging problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation” about the virus and the jabs.
At least up to that point, the censors could justify all the suspensions and cancellations on the grounds of preventing harm against others (in the case of “hate speech”) or harm against oneself (with allegedly bogus COVID treatments).
But by the summer of 2022, all pretense had been dropped: Social-media censorship is simply about the enforcement of mainstream orthodoxy.
Critics of U.S. aid to Ukraine found themselves vulnerable to suspension or cancellation. YouTube demonetized the channel of a Los Angeles-based Twitch streamer, Jackson Hinkle.
Even an opinion about the state of the economy was subject to the censors’ scrutiny. Meta’s Instagram restricted access to a post by streamer Graham Allen suggesting a recession was underway based on one of the traditional definitions of a recession — two consecutive quarters of declining GDP. (The Biden administration was taking issue with that definition at the time.)
The power elite’s endgame is obvious, and it harks back to Weissmueller’s remark above about “a pre-internet age of media gatekeepers.”
The goal is a 21st-century version of the “good old days” when three national evening newscasts, taking their cue from that morning’s New York Times, set the boundaries for acceptable discourse.
Slender boundaries they are, akin to the 40-yard lines on a football field. Anything to the left of Joe Biden or the right of Mitch McConnell is at risk of the ban hammer.
Censorship for Financial Stability… and Newsletters in the Crosshairs
Little wonder that by the time Silicon Valley Bank went under this spring, a U.S. senator was demanding social-media censorship on the theory it would prevent bank runs.
The senator was Mark Kelly (D-Arizona) — the former astronaut and husband of gunshot victim-turned-gun-rights-opponent Gabrielle Giffords.
The story was broken by Michael Shellenberger at his Substack site. During a Sunday-night conference call with about 200 participants, Kelly “asked representatives from the Federal Reserve, Treasury Department and the Federal Deposit and Insurance Corporation (FDIC) if they had a way to censor information on social media to prevent a run on the banks.”
According to Fox News, “Kelly's camp denied the claim Monday evening and said Sen. Kelly asked about foreign adversaries potentially trying to take advantage of the situation by spreading misinformation.”
“Foreign adversaries” — that’s always the pretext. And then as time goes by, the censorship is always turned against Americans.
It started after Donald Trump won the 2016 election over Hillary Clinton. Democratic Party leaders blamed everyone but themselves for running a terrible candidate and a terrible campaign. In particular they blamed “the Russians” — as if cheesy Facebook memes like this one changed anybody’s mind about who to vote for…
Within a year of Trump’s victory, two of our own editors ended up on blacklists smearing them as Russian stooges — blacklists propagated by “prestigious” think tanks and media organs like The Washington Post. (For the record, they were Jim Rickards and former colleague David Stockman.)
So yeah — this issue is not hypothetical. It gets to the heart of what we do at Paradigm Press.
From the earliest days of our trade, financial newsletter editors have trafficked in ideas outside the mainstream.
Nearly a century ago, Roger Babson warned the Roaring ‘20s were destined to end in tears. (They did.) A half-century ago, Harry Browne urged readers to forget the “Nifty Fifty” stocks and pile into precious metals after President Nixon killed off the last vestiges of the gold standard. (Good advice then.) Just over a quarter-century ago, James Dale Davidson warned about The Plague of the Black Debt. (It still plagues us.)
Across the decades, up to the present day, newsletter editors give voice to a nagging feeling people have in the back of their minds — that reality isn’t the way the mainstream gatekeepers portray it. We daresay financial newsletters were the pioneers of “alternative media.”
Here in these 5 Bullets and in our predecessor e-letter, we’ve brought our own snarky spin to the newsletter art — lobbing spitballs at central bankers, politicians and the allegedly best-and-brightest denizens of Wall Street.
We called out former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke for perjury. We called out Warren Buffett for outrageous acts of crony capitalism. We called out House Speaker Paul Ryan as a phony years before it was fashionable. We called out JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon for all-around douchebaggery.
For the longest time, we did this while flying under the radar. The newsletter biz was a niche thing with a limited audience.
But then comes 2016 and 2017 and my own colleagues show up on blacklists. Criticize the Federal Reserve or the big banks? Well, you’re “amplifying Russian talking points” and “sowing discord” among everyday Americans.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that these were the early acts of an emerging “censorship industrial complex” — encompassing government agencies, Big Tech, academia and mushrooming nonprofits devoted to rooting out “disinformation.”
Introducing the Censorship Industrial Complex
Only in the last year has the stupefying extent of the censorship come out into the open — laying bare how the censorship industrial complex works.
First came the “Twitter Files” last December — revealing internal communications at Twitter during the years before Elon Musk bought the company. Musk and his team shared the memos, emails and chats with a half-dozen writers led by ex-Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi and the aforementioned Michael Shellenberger. (It’s Shellenberger who came up with the term “censorship industrial complex.”
The Twitter Files demonstrated a clear pattern of harassment and intimidation on the part of three-letter agencies — browbeating Twitter’s pre-Musk leadership to suppress speech that flew in the face of government-approved narratives.
For instance: “Hi team, can we get your opinion on this? This was flagged by DHS.” Or “Please see attached report from the FBI for potential misinformation.”
In short order, these “flags” and “reports” would lead to the suspension of people’s accounts.
True, Twitter’s “woke” managers were frequently eager to cooperate — but many of the Twitter Files also show them frustrated with the feds’ demands they uncover evidence of, say, “a Russian op” when none existed.
In addition to the Twitter Files, still more damning documents emerged in the federal court case Missouri v. Biden.
The case was brought by the attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana — joined by epidemiologists Jay Bhattacharya and Martin Kulldorff. Perhaps you recognize their names as co-authors of the Great Barrington Declaration of October 2020 — a statement challenging the politicized “science” behind COVID lockdowns, restrictions and mandates. Both were subject to social-media bans.
Likewise for another plaintiff, psychiatrist Aaron Kheriaty — author of The New Abnormal: The Rise of the Biomedical Security State.
As Kheriaty wrote in June, “Documents we have reviewed on discovery demonstrate that government censorship was far more wide-ranging than previously known, from election integrity and the Hunter Biden laptop story to gender ideology, abortion, monetary policy, the U.S. banking system, the war in Ukraine, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and more. [Emphasis ours.]
“There is hardly a topic of recent public discussion and debate that the U.S. government has not targeted for censorship.”
And the censorship is as blatant as it gets. You can click on the following tweet for compelling documentary evidence…
Elsewhere in the Missouri v. Biden documents, we learn that during the first week of the Biden administration, the White House sent a “request” for Twitter to delete a tweet by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
In July, a federal judge issued a stay — ordering the Biden administration to stop badgering Big Tech to censor. But for the moment, that order has been overturned as the Supreme Court prepares to hear the case soon.
Typically, Supreme Court rulings on big cases like these come late in June. But with the 2024 campaign looming, this one might be racing up the docket along with the ones directly related to the election..
The Real Issue: Who Decides the Truth?
The nature of the stakes came into focus only last July when RFK Jr. testified to Congress.
The proceedings before the House Judiciary Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government were surreal — especially the conduct of the committee’s Democrats.
Our former colleague Jeffrey Tucker, now running the Brownstone Institute, watched it all. “They tried to shut down RFK. They moved to go to executive session so that the public could not hear the proceedings. The effort failed. Then they shouted over his words when they were questioning him.
“They wildly smeared him and defamed him. They even began with an attempt to block him from speaking at all, and eight Democrats voted to support that…
“The protests against his statements were shrill and shocking. They moved quickly from ‘Censorship didn’t happen’ to ‘It was necessary and wonderful’ to ‘We need more of it.’
“Reporting on the spectacle, The New York Times said these are ‘thorny questions’: ‘Is misinformation protected by the First Amendment? When is it appropriate for the federal government to seek to tamp down the spread of falsehoods?’
“These are not thorny questions. The real issue concerns who is to be the arbiter of truth?” declares Mr. Tucker.
Exactly. Those are the stakes.
As Matt Taibbi wrote at the time, “The authors of the Constitution understood that giving anyone the authority to decide questions of fact would create incentives for censorship, especially since government offices tend to be occupied by people with strong political beliefs.”
And as Current Affairs editor Nathan Robinson tweeted, “Restrictions on ‘misinformation’ are bad because they inevitably empower a fallible authority who cannot be trusted to distinguish truth from falsehood. Restricting it doesn’t cause lies to vanish, it just gives one person or entity a power that nobody should have.”
Finally, Libertarian Institute executive editor Sheldon Richman: “Let’s remember that much of the challenge to the government’s take on the pandemic and other matters — criticism belittled as ‘tin-foil’ conspiracy-mongering — turned out to be true.
“Contrary to the government’s position, the search for the truth requires the freedom to openly disagree and debate. That search abhors centralization, coercion and the exclusion of anyone but the politically anointed ‘experts.’”
Worse, behind the censorship is the ever-looming threat of “financial cancellation.”
As Taibbi testified to Congress last spring, “Ordinary Americans are not just being reported to Twitter for ‘de-amplification’ or de-platforming, but to firms like PayPal, digital advertisers like Xandr and crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe. These companies can and do refuse service to law-abiding people and businesses whose only crime is falling afoul of a distant, faceless, unaccountable, algorithmic judge.”
One of PayPal’s founding executives, David Sacks, saw the slippery slope in 2021: “As with the censorship of speech, financial deplatforming often begins as something that seems narrow and reasonable — who wouldn’t want to ban the Oath Keepers or Proud Boys? But once the power is granted, it metastasizes into widespread use.”
Yep. Last year, PayPal and Venmo cancelled the accounts of the aforementioned Jackson Hinkle, the Twitch streamer who refused to toe the Washington line on the Ukraine war. PayPal delivered the same treatment to the venerable alt-news website Consortium News, evidently for the same reason.
Of course, the ultimate example of financial cancellation was the Canadian truckers in February 2022 — locked out of their bank accounts for protesting vaccine mandates.
Here in 2023, the closing of British pundit Nigel Farage’s bank accounts backfired badly – but stateside, JPMorgan Chase cancelled several accounts linked to Dr. Joseph Mercola, the alternative health guru.
Free Speech Today, a Felony Offense Tomorrow
The bigger threat now is that all manner of speech once considered protected by the First Amendment might soon open you up to criminal prosecution.
One of the disturbing documents that’s shown up in Missouri v. Biden is a memo from a Department of Homeland Security advisory committee — recommending DHS draw up steps to halt the “spread of false and misleading information” — especially anything that undermines “key democratic institutions, such as the courts, or by other sectors such as the financial system, or public health measures.” [Emphasis ours.]
Yeah, there’s “the financial system” again.
Now… couple that document with the federal indictment filed against Donald Trump last summer in Washington, D.C.
On the first page of the indictment, you find peculiar language about how Trump aimed to “create an intense national atmosphere of mistrust and anger and erode public faith in the administration of the election.”
Matt Taibbi again: “Instead of focusing on overt acts in the individual states, episodes which clearly make even some Trump supporters nervous, the prosecutors are after bigger game. They want to argue that by spreading ‘lies’ Trump created an ‘atmosphere of mistrust and anger’ that, by the end, they will argue led to the ‘violent’ ‘attack’ on the Capitol.”
You don’t have to believe Trump won the 2020 election — I don’t — to appreciate the gravity of the threat here.
If Special Counsel Jack Smith can make these charges stick, ponder the legal precedent.
For now, talking smack about the Federal Reserve’s incompetence or JPMorgan Chase’s serial felonies is still free speech. But an ambitious prosecutor of the future might decide it undermines confidence in “monetary policy” or “the U.S. banking system” or “the financial system” — resulting in, well, a bank run.
Yeah, I know, that feels like a stretch at the moment.
But five years ago, did you ever imagine Alex Jones’ deplatforming would bring us to where we are now?
Managing editor, Paradigm Pressroom's 5 Bullets