Let Foreigners Speak

In our ordinary informal lives of leisure, friendship, romance, and entertainment, we mainly regulate and mitigate the harms of speech with the option to use more speech. If we don’t like what someone says, we say something critical of what they said, or of them. We label, index, dissect, and evaluate, but we don’t ban or require any particular speech, other than via the incentives that our speech can produce.

However, as we move into the worlds of business and politics, we more often endorse censorship and forced speech. For example, regarding contracts, we allow lawsuits alleging fraud, and we require disclosure of safety info. Occupational licensing limits from whom you can get legal or medical advice. We let regulators forbid alcohol firms from making ads that say truthfully that teetotalers are less healthy than others, and require that firms disclosure financial info. We allow lawsuits alleging that slander hurt our business revenue, and require that everyone all carry valid ID. In politics, we require that donors disclose themselves, and we ban foreigners from direct participation in domestic election conversations.

It is worth remembering that most of the worse villains in history were famously far into censorship and required speech. The Catholic inquisition required people to agree with their dogma, and tortured and killed those who disagreed. US south slave owners beat slaves for speaking their minds, and prohibited teaching them to read. Nazi and communist regimes required public vows of allegiance, censored art and books, and punished dissidents. For centuries dictators have repressed dissidents, censored speech, and sought to control schools, newspapers, radio, and TV. Oppressive churches, firms, and other orgs have also sought to censor dissent and to require public agreement with their dogmas.

To me the obvious lesson from this history is to be reluctant to endorse banned or required speech; try as much as possible to solve speech problems with more speech. Yes, we might want to limit things like saying “fire” in a crowded theatre, but there’s a vast space of possible added speech solutions to explore, and we’ve seen a lot of innovation there in the last few decades. (Such as search engines and prediction markets.) It seems dangerous to empower some groups to decide what to censor or require; their first priority is too often to censor criticism of them and to require public agreement with them.

Traditionally US courts have declared themselves the most reluctant to regulate election-related speech, as they see promoting effective political competition as the core rationale for free speech. But lately it saddens me to see people especially eager to regulate political speech. People push for such regulation of politically-related “fake news” by our new mass-participation common-carriers like Facebook and Google, even though in past generations related common-carriers like telephones were especially prohibited from regulating political speech.

It also saddens me to see Trump critics focus most on cases where Trump encouraged foreigners to collect and distribute info on Trump’s political rivals. The focus of the Mueller investigation was Trump apparently encouraging Russians to find & distribute true dirt on Hillary Clinton. The focus of the current impeachment process is Trump apparently encouraging Ukrainians to find and distribute true dirt on Joe Biden.

I’m not especially a Trump fan, though I don’t intuitively loathe him remotely as much as so many do. And I understand that his critics see him as having done a great many quite blameworthy things. So it is sad to see this focus on foreign election influence, which will make it harder for us to adopt the global free speech norms that I prefer. I’d rather that everyone in the world was allowed and even encouraged to speak on everything in the world, including everyone’s elections. My reason is just the simple standard free speech arguments outlined above.

I can maybe see limiting the abilities of enemy combatants during wartime to make their case to our citizens that we should quit the war or that we are the morally guilty party. Though even here I’m not very convinced. But outside of war, I’d rather just let foreigners talk as much as they want to our voters. Yes of course they will have agendas they pursue in what they say, but that’s usually true of most everyone not only in election conversations, but in most all kinds of conversations.

Let the listener beware. Don’t believe everything you hear, and if you don’t like what others say, then by all means criticize it. But don’t outlaw it. Or require people to say the opposite. We just shouldn’t consider it treason or espionage to encourage foreigners to influence domestic elections by talking.  (It is fine, of course, to disapprove of assassinations.)

I can see the point of arguing that when a politician tries to negotiate to encourage particular speech, some kinds of pressures or incentives they might offer are legitimate, while others are not. But my understanding is that most backroom politics is largely about offering pressures and incentives to get people to go along with your plans, many of which are driven by selfish career agendas. It is not yet clear to me that Trump’s pressures and incentives in these foreign talk cases were greatly out of line with most politics.

But my main interest here isn’t Trump, it is foreign free speech. Let’s remember the larger lesson of speech in history, that the worst villains ever didn’t like it. So let us be wary of speech bans and requirements, and instead move toward letting everyone talk on everything, and fixing speech problems with more speech.

Added 11Oct: Alas, my Twitter followers don’t agree with me:

Added 13Oct: US law bans on foreigner participation in US elections.

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