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Free Speech, Twitter, and the “Collective Unconsciousness of the Species”

The Eternally Radical Idea

This article appeared in The Huffington Post.

Last month my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the National Constitution Center on Independence Mall in Philadelphia co-hosted a panel discussion, ‘The State of Free Speech in America.’ The panelists included Dr. Stanley Fish of the Cardozo School of Law, University of Chicago Law School Professor Eric Posner, Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution, and me. National Constitution Center President and CEO Jeffrey Rosen moderated the debate saying it was “one of the greatest panels I’ve ever moderated. What an electric discussion!” The full video of the discussion can be found here.

It was a fast-paced and fun night, and we never shied away from controversial topics, such as: Should “hate speech” be protected speech? What is academic freedom? Should our laws protect the right to insult politicians? We covered everything from Hobby Lobby to the Holocaust to the (in)famous Innocence of Muslims video.

In addition to defending free speech on campus, I am an enthusiast for freedom of speech in social media, and I am particularly bullish about Twitter. Last year in an article on CNET, I explained why I believe it is important to protect even hateful speech in a forum like Twitter. In the course of the NCC debate, I referred to Twitter as something akin to the “collective unconsciousness of the species.”

While I was surprised to hear those words come out of my mouth, I want to explain what I meant by them. If you follow Twitter, you are witnessing what may very well be the most ambitious experiment in self-expression ever attempted.The Twittersphere is a torrent of initial gut reactions, calculated provocation, flashes of brilliance coupled with flashes of anger, jealousy, compassion, manipulation, candor and connection, brilliantly funny jokes, and miserably failed attempts at jokes, poetry, news, commentary. All this is combined with both cascading misperceptions, and, at times, brutal insight. When I watch different Twitter streams flash by, I can’t help but think that they are a lot like the strange battles between impulse and mediated opinion that go on in our own heads, except expanded to millions and millions of users all over the world. Twitter provides an unparalleled chance to look at a weird organic global mind—but that, of course, means that sometimes we will see some things we very much dislike.

As I discussed during the panel, it seems as though “sophisticated” academic opinion is increasingly coming down on the side of censorship these days, dismissively treating those of us who are pro-free-speech as if we’re hopelessly naïve. Their response to offensive speech on the Internet is to empower governments to punish it. To me, this idea is worse than naïve; it is downright anti-academic.

Twitter gives us an unequaled insight into how we emotionally and rationally process information and interaction at lightning speed, all within a global conversation. We should study it and allow as much room as possible for the conversation to grow organically so it can teach us more about ourselves and about the way this new information dynamic is evolving. The suggestion that we should use a heavy hand to regulate it in order to prevent offense, is, to me, the truly naïve point of view, and roughly as sophisticated as an ostrich sticking its head in the dirt. Platforms like Twitter provide an unprecedented opportunity to learn about the way we think, react, and form our beliefs, and I, for one, welcome its insight.

You can find the whole transcript of our panel discussion here, or watch the video at your leisure now.

And if you prefer to watch the debate on the big screen, you can catch the whole debate on C-Span tonight at 8pm ET.

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