Chelsea Follett: Joining the podcast today is David Inserra, a fellow for free expression and technology at the Cato Institute and thus my colleague. His research focuses on the importance of both policies and a culture that promotes free expression in the technology space. Inserra’s work covers topics including online content policies and moderation, government jawboning, and the harmful impacts of censorship on individuals, companies, technology, and society as a whole. David comes to Cato following four years on Meta’s content policy teams where he was responsible for crafting and enforcing Meta’s community standards, focusing on hate speech, violent speech, restricted goods and services, and support to Meta’s oversight board. Inserra has an MPP from George Mason University and a BA from the College of William and Mary. Go Tribe. How are you, David?

David Inserra: I’m doing well. Go Tribe.

Chelsea Follett: Yes, always nice to have another alum who is working in the liberty policy space. So we’re going to go over today this piece you wrote recently on the free speech recession deepening across the democratic world. Tell me about what prompted you to write this.

David Inserra: Yeah, so I’ve been doing a variety of… Reading a variety of different pieces, doing some research of my own, and came across a study by an organization called the Future of Free Speech based at Vanderbilt University that was looking at the way in which free speech as a whole and the support for free speech, both in terms of the way our culture supports it, but also in terms of the way legally free speech is protected, is declining around the world. And this is something which various experts have talked about and written out, but this study did a good job of trying to look at, let’s look at about 22 different democracies around the world. So let’s actually zoom in not just on is it getting worse in Russia? Is it getting worse in Iran? But in the places that are most, in theory, dedicated to giving their citizens the right to express themselves and thus to be free people who can govern themselves.

And in those societies where free expression should be the most protected, we actually, the study finds that it’s actually declining and it looked at these 22 countries from for about seven years, it found that over the course of seven years from 2015 to 2022, 78% of new legislation or court decisions or various regulatory actions, 78% of these major actions were restricting speech. That’s a significant decline in expression around places where we most should care about. And so that really, that really caught my eye and it’s only something which we’ve seen continue. And this piece delves into more things that we’ve seen even in 2023. And we may even see in 2024 that deal with that, unfortunately continue this trend.

Chelsea Follett: And one of the reasons it’s significant that this is happening even in democratic countries that you get into is that actually cultural support for freedom of speech in many democratic countries is declining right now. Can you talk a bit about that polling?

David Inserra: Yeah. So what we see happening and we see this both in the US and abroad, but especially if we just take a moment to think about the US, we see the fact that while we have probably some of the strongest protections for freedom of expression in our first amendment in the world, there are several sort of anecdotal quotes that are useful. Judge Learned Hand says that if freedom of expression dies in essentially the heart of a man, no law can revive it. Similarly, George Orwell talks about how if free speech is not supported by the general population, then we won’t have freedom of expression. It will be ignored by the police and ignored by authorities against inconvenient minorities. So we know this going back a hundred plus years to these thinkers who have talked about this.

We see, unfortunately, a start of this sort of decline in the way our populations are thinking about free expression. They think of it as increasingly harmful. They especially think about things like hate speech or misinformation, these things you get these calls like hate speech isn’t free speech or the belief that the government should step in to actually counter misinformation. I believe somewhere around a majority of Americans now think that the government should do something about misinformation just to stop it. And that’s like, no, like misinformation can be harmful. It can be bad, but it can also, first of all, it’s not always misinformation. Sometimes it’s actually the truth that we just haven’t figured out yet, but that’s what the purpose of free expression is supposed to protect us from the government stepping in to decide what is true, what is false and to criminalize false or harmful beliefs or bad tendencies that people may have. That’s the whole purpose of the first amendment.

And if it doesn’t apply to misinformation, then pretty much endless anything is, can be called into question about whether or not it should be protected. So this decline in support, I think really needs to be… We need to draw attention to this because it means that people who care about liberty, people who care about free expression need to do, I think, a better job defending not just like the first amendment, the legal standard that says you have these protections, but why is it important that we care about freedom of expression for advancing liberty, for giving people choices in their lives, for allowing people to learn more and allowing societies to handle difficult topics and to handle social conflicts. Expression is incredibly important for these and other reasons, but I think that belief is on the decline and we need to remind people of that.

Chelsea Follett: And I think we’ll get more into the relationship between freedom of speech, both cultural and legal, and human progress generally later on in this podcast, but let’s first go over some of the specific examples that you cite of freedom of speech declining or being under attack around the world.

David Inserra: Sure, yeah. So like I said, the Future Free Speech Study did a great job of looking at things from 2015 to 2022. And so I just figured, well, there’s things in the news right now that you could just add on. If the study had kept going, you could find more things, and it’s worth calling some of those out. One of the first things that I call out is a bill in the Irish Parliament that is dealing with incitement to violence or hatred.

And essentially what this would do is, I’ll start by saying that it’s already mostly passed. It’s basically in their higher chamber, which doesn’t really have veto authority as far as I know it, but it can slow the bill down or modify it. So this could be very much like the bill that is just passed into law. It’s almost ready to go. But after some riots in Dublin at the end of last year, the government really doubled down and says, we need this bill passed now. We need to implement this bill as quickly as we can.

But what this bill would do is essentially say, it would be illegal to communicate or behave in a way that, “is likely to incite hatred,” where what that is is nowhere defined what is hatred. So you’re kind of left guessing. But certainly, we don’t want hate, but since the bill can’t even define it, it’s really going to be up to, well, does the government think this is hatred? Governments can change. Prosecutors can change.

It leaves people with a little of a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads because any moment, anything that they’ve said or could have said could be defined as hatred. But more difficult than that is that it actually makes it so that if you were to say, for instance, not share your… That the police come knocking and say, we believe you’ve shared something hateful or dangerous, you’d have to give up your passwords and your encryption keys. Otherwise, you’d also be prosecuted because you’re assumed to sort of be guilty if you don’t give up those things.

So not only is it saying we can prosecute you for hate speech poorly or not at all defined, but when we come to say we believe you’ve done this and you refuse to give up your passwords and your encryption keys, you go to jail anyway because you refuse to hand them over. So there’s sort of this idea that just if you possess reckless memes on your phone and the cops come knocking, you’re going to jail in Ireland potentially.

And the amount of ways in which this could be abused and just work out in sort of counterintuitive ways is just like, okay, so for example, some of the things I point out are if it’s illegal to possess this, even possess content that could be inciting someone to hatred. Well, okay, what exactly is inciting people to hatred? It could be if you compare Donald Trump to Hitler, have you trivialized Nazi war crimes? If a Catholic priest in Ireland takes a rather traditional religious perspective on sexuality, is that hatred? Is right now ongoing conflicts between Palestine, Israel, is that going to involve condoning or trivializing war crimes or whatnot? Like the amount of things that could come under this umbrella of this law are massive. And it really just comes down to how does the government want to enforce it? And that’s a scary prospect.

Chelsea Follett: Absolutely. There are some other even more recent examples that we were discussing before we hit record, you mentioned a blasphemy law. Can you talk a little bit about that?

David Inserra: Yeah. So at the very end of 2023, we saw the Danish government decided to implement essentially what is a blasphemy or sacrilege law that said that if you were to burn essentially religious artifacts, religious books, such as the Quran, you would go to jail for two years. This passed the parliament, has been implemented, but it’s notable that no one in the governing coalition actually stood up to defend the law in its final passage.

They sort of know in modern liberal secular Denmark, they know that the idea that they’re reaching for a blasphemy law is antiquated and ancient. Iran has sacrilege and blasphemy laws. In Iran, you can be killed for, you can be executed by the government. But the idea that you’re joining ranks with states like Iran to imprison people for simply having the desire to peacefully burn a book of whatever faith or organization that you disagree with, that’s what… Burning books and burning products while we, I think, often think of things like Nazis burning books and we kind of recoil at it, burning objects have been very powerful symbols of protest across human history. Think about Martin Luther burning the bull that was condemning his writings as heretical. You can think about Vietnam War protesters burning their draft cards. There’s a lot of cases where burning objects has a powerful symbolic value that while some people, in some cases, it might just be gross or very brutish, sort of speak, I just dislike this, so I just burn it. In some cases, it’s a very powerful symbolic statement. And to say, well, you can’t do this because we don’t like the kind of speech you have, that is incredibly dangerous.

And it’s something which is sad to see somewhere like Denmark, which had actually just, I think, a few, maybe a decade prior, gotten rid of their blasphemy law, which hadn’t been enforced for like decades, fight fall back into it all because they were receiving pressure from violent people abroad. Authoritarian states were pressuring them, terrorist organizations were saying we’re trying to attack or storm embassies like there was violence. But to say that you’re gonna concede your values to the violent and the authoritarians, it speaks to the fact that the sad state of even in modern, places that are considered modern, secular liberal, are going backwards in their defense of free expression.

And it just means that people in Denmark now, if they want to express their disdain for books, they want to talk about how much they disagree with this a religion or disagree with an ideology, and they want to use that symbol of burning or otherwise ruining certain texts, they can’t do that. And if they choose to do that, they will go to jail. And that’s incredibly sad to see that relapse.

Chelsea Follett: Another thing that you cite is the EUs “censorship inducing,” in your words, Digital Services Act. Could you talk a bit about that?

David Inserra: Yeah. So the Digital Services Act is a, first of all, it’s a massive, there’s a lot going on in the Digital Services Act. So can’t cover it all. But one of the things that the Digital Services Act does is that it gives a significant amount of power to EU bureaucrats to try to crack down on what they view as illegal speech as defined by EU bureaucrats and by the law. And in so doing, it essentially especially applies to very, very, I think, it’s called very large online platforms especially focused on large social media companies. And it’s notable that pretty much all those companies are just American companies, I think except for TikTok. TikTok so one Chinese company and a bunch of American companies. And the EU is basically just trying to get their hands on things that they didn’t build and try to control how the expression works.

But what happened is that they have the power to essentially investigate and demand things from social media companies when they’re not doing things the way the EU really thinks they should. And while in theory, they can just be like, oh, it’s just a peaceful request for information, it comes with the threat of, and if you don’t, and if it doesn’t end up the way we want it to, we will then take you to… We’ll enforce against you. And we actually have already seen this I believe Twitter, X, is currently in sort of enforcement proceedings for the first time. This bill only took effect in the end or middle of 2023. And it’s already being used to enforce against Twitter for not handling, I think, especially what the EU is considered misinformation or hate speech especially in light of what’s going on in Gaza and Israel.

I understand the EU wants to control things that they didn’t build. But essentially, they’re using this power to essentially demand. If you don’t, like, we’re gonna send letters to all of you demanding what’s you’re do… How you’re responding to the situation, and essentially with the sort of implicit idea of, are you responding the way we hope you’re responding to the situation, otherwise, look what happened to X. We’re gonna bring you before… We’re gonna bring you and enforce our laws against you, and it can cost you as much as 6% of their, I think it’s global revenue. It’s a ton of money that the EU can essentially extract from companies just because they wanna sort of moderate their platforms in a way that might not fully align with the EU’s preferred way of moderating content.

Or in some cases just because with it, sometimes we just don’t know, like misinformation in Israel, Gaza conflict, there’s a lot of it. And there still is because sometimes we just don’t know the truth of what’s going on. And responding in this sort of censorial fashion doesn’t help us necessarily acquire the truth in those situations. Oftentimes, the social media reports, while they may, many may be misleading, many may have truth that other journalists don’t have access to. They’re not on the ground, they don’t see it. And so we’re just embracing this idea of, well, we hope that hopefully we can pick the right sources of information, know the truth then, but that’s not a really good way to know what’s going on in the world.

Chelsea Follett: Absolutely. And all of those examples, Ireland, Denmark, the EU, that’s all in Europe, but this isn’t a trend that’s limited to Europe. You also talk about developments in Australia.

David Inserra: Yeah, so this one is essentially in… There was a development at the end of 2023 where there’s a bill that was trying to almost kind of like the Digital Services Act, try to give Australia, the Australian government some authority to look into and regulate the way that the moderation practices of social media companies were handled. But it was notable to say that first of all, Australia’s own human rights commission, they have like a government funded, basically human rights organization said, yeah, this bill is very problematic. ‘Cause notably, anything the government of Australia says could never be considered misinformation. So it’s like literally this entire apparatus that they would be creating would only be directed at people who disagree with the government. And of course, governments can switch from labor to conservative or to other, like you could have a daily switch of what you… In theory, you could have a switch of what is true and what is false as soon as you have a change of government.

Yeah, anyway, just pure political… The potential for purely political interference was there. And then at the end of last… At the end of 2023, we saw that there was a freedom of information request in which the government sort of telecommunications minister, they saw in the FOIA documents, explicitly told the prime Minister that the bill that was being considered would give her the power to direct investigations into what the government considered to be misinformation.

So it wasn’t just a possibility of politically driven witch-hunts. It was explicitly being talked about by the current government. Now, that Bill is under consideration. It is being sort of reworked. It received such negative press in the middle of 2023 that it was already being reworked. But from the additional news to come out that, well, we didn’t like Europe, you were blatantly considering using this to squelch political opponents. That’s gonna mean that whatever happens in 2024, we’ll see what happens. But let’s just say that I think it’s gonna be a great bit of scrutiny placed on whatever reworked version of this comes out for consideration this year.

Chelsea Follett: Let’s delve a bit more into some of the dangers of these kinds of laws, and the flip side, the importance of freedom of speech and of expression for progress. You already spoke a little bit about how this can be used to essentially censor criticism of the current government and its policies, that has all sorts of repercussions. And you speak in this piece for examining about how historically, freedom of speech and greater access to free expression has caused people in high positions of power. People in government, especially to panic. Can you talk a little bit about how freedom of speech levels the playing field and the effects on power dynamics in society?

David Inserra: Yeah, so this idea of sort of elite panic, this idea that whenever there’s something that challenges the authority of whatever powerful organizations, people, structures are in place, every time in human history, we’ve seen these dramatic advancements in free expression, people who are gatekeepers in positions of power. These elites respond by freaking out. It makes sense, right? Their power is being challenged, their control over authority and information is being challenged. You can go back literally to the printing press which has this massive explosion of people’s ability to access the written word beyond just what a scribe can write on a parchment, right? Like a massive explosion that you see things like the renaissance, the Reformation. But you see almost immediately after the printing press is created, you see the Pope, who much incredibly powerful at this period, in human history is saying, we need regulation to stop the “misuse of the printing press for the distributions of pernicious writings.”

You see the Ottoman Empire, which by different historical accounts, it’s not clear if they officially shunned it or if they just informally were like, yeah, this isn’t really good for us, we’re not gonna embrace it. Whatever. What happens? The Ottoman Empire goes from being an incredibly strong power that is taking over that is sweeping across southern Europe and is gobbling up more and more land to becoming the sick man of Europe because they did not adopt this technology, which allowed for the vast expansion of knowledge and ability for people to read and think about issues. But you can go, that’s one of the first examples.

You can also jump to things just like the telegram. It was in the New York Times. The New York Times was talking about it as superficial sudden unsifted too fast for the truth, right? Why do we need a Telegram when we could send it on a boat? And I don’t know, think about it for however many weeks or months it takes to get around the world. Like the idea that it won’t add to the happiness of mankind doesn’t help us. Like, no, the Telegram meant that what took months or weeks could be reduced to seconds. Same thing with there was reports in the Times about the telephone that could be harming the hearing of its users. And you can go to modern day other things like movies, video games always being blamed for, you name it changing in social mores or causing violence. There’s always a challenge. There’s always like a, the elites in society are always then saying that this new technology that is increasing access to communication, increasing access to the way people view and think about the world, these are harmful, bad things.

And so we see this as a consistent trend and we are seeing it right now with social media and the internet writ large. We’re seeing this where the social media and the internet have probably leveled the playing field more than any other technology. ‘Cause even the printing press and all these other things, you’re still limited by the physical ability to get the words on the paper and put it in someone’s hands. Now you could put it, you can get your own website for really cheap, put it up there. You can write it on Facebook, you can write it on X, it’s there, almost anyone can access it. You can access almost anyone else’s written words and thoughts. This has been a massive explosion and that I think is why you see today so much energy being put into this idea that there’s so much misinformation, there’s so much hate speech, there’s so much harmful content online because there’s this panic that has started as like a, I think I understandable that any technology is going to radically shape the way that we communicate as humans, that’s always been the case, but we’re in that phase right now. We’re in that backlash. We’re saying, no, actually that’s been, it’s been harmful to us and we’re forgetting the massive benefits that it’s had because I think we’re overreacting in the way that we, as humans, often have in the face of these new technologies.

Chelsea Follett: Absolutely. And the flip side of all of the traditional authorities feeling threatened by this expansion and access to free expression. The flip side of the religious authorities feeling threatened by the advent of the printing press and the nobility and the guilds also being threatened by that is of course, that by allowing people to discuss new ideas, you then did get this push for new forms of government. You saw the dissolution of the power of the nobility, the guilds, you saw liberal democracy rise up. All of these changes that probably wouldn’t have been possible without the ability to discuss controversial ideas. So many things that we now accept as progress, for one seen as very controversial, whether it’s women having the right to vote or the abolition of slavery, so many examples of now universally recognized progress throughout history were once extremely controversial, and being able to discuss them, even, these ideas was not always allowed and it was often suppressed. Could you talk a little bit more about that relationship between progress and freedom of speech?

David Inserra: Yeah. So one of my favorite quotes in this area is by Frederick Douglass, right? So the esteemed abolitionist who talks about, he said, I’ll quote him. He says, “No, right was deemed by the fathers of the government more sacred than the right of speech. It was in their eyes as in the eyes of all thoughtful men, the great moral renovator of society and government.” He’s speaking to people on the verge of civil war. A country in massive degrees of conflict over an issue of whether humans can be property and treated inhumanely and terribly. And he’s addressing that issue by saying, free expression is the way that we talk about this issue and bring clarity to this great moral issue of our time. And that has been true across human history.

Civil rights advocates have said the same thing about how their ability to talk about, to have free expression was the force that was able to drive their message to the people of America who finally said, this is wrong. We’re doing something wrong. We need to change the way we treat each other. And the way our laws treat various classes of people. This has been the consistent theme of history is that freedom of expression is not a threat to the minority and the persecuted, freedom of expression is the tool that the weak have to call out the abuses of the powerful. It’s the ability to make argument and to change minds. It is the ability to the press to be able to raise awareness of these abuses. It is a powerful force for good that I think often gets missed in today’s discourse.

You’ve also alluded to it earlier, this idea that it’s also a democratizing force, freedom of expression, especially as we see it in its modern incarnation with modern technologies. People who before had very little ability to directly influence discussions of what’s going on online. You can now speak on issues of great political and social import on a social media platform for free. Where before your best guess was probably to send a letter to the editor of the New York Times or something like that and hope that out of the thousands of letters they were receiving, they picked yours to print. And you get like a short little byline in a massive paper. And hopefully you’ve swayed some minds that way. You now have this huge democratizing impact of speech of people to speak on issues that they care about.

These are all things that we should celebrate. And like I said, I worry that that is all being lost in the concern about all the harmful things. And I think we should remind ourselves of these great advantages. ‘Cause they are to our benefit. And we risk losing them if we sort of over… If we do what other nations around the world are doing and start to say, we need to limit this speech, we need to limit this ’cause it’s harmful. While you’re also then losing those benefits. You’re harming those activists, you’re harming those minority groups. ‘Cause inevitably, another truth across human history has been that whenever there’s been restrictions put in place, inevitably they come back to harm the people who are the weakest in society. They may have the best of intentions, but it’s only a matter of time before it’s used against someone who maybe these people who are supporting these restrictions is inevitably used against the people who they’re trying to protect.

So the way we go forward here is not by adding more restrictions, it is by embracing the expression that we do have. And if you see harmful things, we should be thinking about the ways in which we engage in counter speech. How you engage in dialogue with other people with whom you disagree. ‘Cause that is the best way to make progress. It’s the best way to change other people’s minds rather than just sort of shutting down debate and hoping that by silencing people, you somehow will change their minds, which never happens and anything, they become more ardent believers in the cause that you’ve silenced them on. So we’re doing ourselves no favor with this, this move towards censorship. Instead we need to, I said, we need to just, as a value in our society, embrace expression, make expression great again.

Chelsea Follett: That’s a great line. And it’s very true that historically and today, if there is no freedom of speech, there still is free expression for people at the very top of society. If you were the president, if you are the king, you can say whatever you want. Freedom of speech exists really to protect the ability to express viewpoints that are not those held by whoever is in charge. And we’ve seen again and again throughout history, whether it’s in the marketplaces of ancient Athens or these salons of Enlightenment-era Paris, that whenever you have a greater variety of viewpoints being discussed, you are more likely to hit upon a new idea that changes the world for the better.

And yet, despite all of these benefits that you’ve been discussing, there is this prevailing pessimism today, this pessimistic narrative about freedom of speech and this belief that increased government intervention restricting the range of viewpoints that can be expressed or censoring speeches is necessary for a variety of reasons. And you see calls from both the right and the left on this, whether it’s about misinformation or ideological bias. There are all these attempts to sort of restrict what can be said in the new public squares that are online in terms of freedom of speech and other forms of speech. Tell me about that pessimistic narrative. What we can do to counter it, perhaps.

David Inserra: Yeah. So I recommend that folks, we actually had a… We had a public event at the end of 2023 with Greg Lukianoff who wrote a new book called The Canceling of the American Mind. That very much is looking at this like, where is this idea that we need to not talk to people, but we need to cancel them. We need to remove their ability to have a livelihood and to engage in polite society because they had a misstep, or sometimes because they were actually entirely right, but one group of people, somebody thought that what they had said was beyond the pale and therefore they need to get them fired or whatnot.

So first, I highly recommend that, and what I say is basically coming off of that event and out of reading that book, which is to say that there’s, I think, we’ve seen over time, especially, in academia, and you can even get a sense of it from what you see going on with the debates right now around how academia is handling different high profile issues and how are they protecting free expression or not protecting it. But there’s these ideas that both the academics, the administrators and increasingly the students have… So the people, the next generation, the people who we’re teaching to, who are stepping into the workplace and to society are being taught and increasingly agreeing with this sort of these ideas that believe in some sort of repressive tolerance.

This idea that was developed by various thinkers, like one named Marcuse, who have this idea that certain types of expression are just inherently harmful and need to be repressed for the good of reaching whatever goal it is that they wanted to achieve. And it was, at the time, it was sort of this fringe idea. But as, I know, Greg Lukianoff talks about in the book, and I think we’ve sort of seen increasingly in my eyes even we’ve seen play out, is that this idea that there are bad ideas that need to be stopped. And we, and by we, I mean those enlightened experts who understand what is good and bad, they believe that it is somehow incumbent upon them to stop that harmful speech, in order to bring about the good that they believe, that they believe should be brought about.

And you see this now as being sort of the, I think, a largely prevailing sort of belief in academia. And I said increasingly, what is taught to students and what students are coming out of college with thus believing things like free speech is not hate speech, believing things that are antithetical to the First Amendment because they bought into this pessimistic narrative that there’s these powerful bad people who are using expression to abuse us in the minority, us in the, who are this true enlightened, good people. And this, it is a pure sort of power grab is what it is. It’s, oh, you just are saying our side deserves to set the rules for what speech is and isn’t allowed. And I think that’s for what it’s worth that school largely started on the left.

But I do think you see people responding on the right who are sort of just being like, well, if they can do it, if this is what they’re teaching, then why shouldn’t we also do it? So I think there’s a sort of just inherent political ideological power struggle going on where if one side is advocating for shutting down voices on the right, then there are folks on the right who are responding by saying, well, then we’re just gonna turn this weapon around and use it against you. And it leads us to the position where we are today, where we all are seeing that ideology and its variations and it’s there’s spots from people on the right and the left, it’s resulting in things like various actions that are currently actually before the Supreme Court.

We have two cases, involving sort of freedom of expression and tech policy, which are before the Supreme Court, this very term that look at, in the one case, it is Florida and Texas have passed bills that sort of say social media companies, you have to allow certain types of speech.

So we’re gonna say your platforms are required to moderate in one way or another. In theory they’re saying we’re protecting expression, we’re allowing more expression. But in so doing, they’re telling these companies that you have to do something with your private property. Like, well, you have to allow this protest to occur. You have to allow someone to use your property or to express their views however way they want to. And you can’t take those perspectives down. Well, people have a right to express themselves and use their property as they wish. And so that’s the problem in these cases. And so you see that bubbling up in the Supreme Court and on the other hand you see cases of government censorship by proxy, this jawboning problem where government actors are pressuring private sector companies to often moderate in a different way to take down content that was generally skeptical of government generally opposed to Covid lockdowns and various social media policies around Covid.

So you see in both cases, you’re seeing the increased pressure, increased growth of government activity that is gnawing away at free expression. Like I said, the Supreme Court is weighing in, so we will see how these turn out. But you can see that government is increasingly feeling like it can act on its desire to restrict speech, probably because it’s seeing increasing numbers of people in the country that are supportive of restrictions and increasing the number of people who have bought into various ideologies that say it’s okay for us to restrict certain kinds of speech.

So that pessimism, while it may have started as in sort of an academic fringe theory, I think has really worked its way into a culture that is largely not capable of tolerating views that are not their own canceling other people and has grown into, morphed into governments seeing maybe we have some room here to expand our reach and ability to restrict expression, in a way that, like I said, is harmful and is, I said, that is clearly important enough for the Supreme Court to take up.

Chelsea Follett: We usually try to end this podcast on a positive note. Obviously a lot of this has been very concerning, but if you could make the case to someone who is skeptical of freedom of speech for it being a powerful force for human progress, how would you do so?

David Inserra: I would make… I think I will make a couple points. The first is that for people who believe that we need to restrict speech, I would immediately warn you about, the power to restrict and control speech will almost always end up in someone else’s control. Someone who you don’t like. We’ve got an election coming up this year. And so any, for instance, bills that were passed, that could be passed even, even if you forget the constitutional issues, any power you work to grant the government, that is gonna go into another, potentially another government’s hands within a year’s timeframe. And so people who are worried about how does this… Does this hurt the minority groups? Does this harm our democracy? Does this… Is this misinformation is getting in the way of us finding the truth?

Just keep in mind that you will always have the problem of, well, on whose authority are you making these calls if you’re giving this power to government? That power will always change hands. And you don’t want to see that, you just don’t. So set a, at a sort of purely, if you’re thinking at a political level, just think about the repercussions of the power you’re going to be potentially granting to your political opponents who can weaponize it against you. So that alone should be like, you are right, I don’t want to do this, but I think more, more meaningfully, we should support freedom of expression because it is, I think, one of the greatest tools that we have as you plan for advancing human progress in any number of spheres. If you want to find out what is true and what is false, free expression helps us with that.

If you wanna understand how someone thinks, you have to engage with them and talk to them, you have to understand, do you wanna understand how someone in history thought about something? Once again, you have to read and have access to these information, and you have to be able to debate with other people about how that, what is true and what is false. If you want to be… If you want someone who’s liberal and you care about people reaching their own self-fulfillment, then you should give people the right to express themselves without fear that they are going to be shunned or jailed. If you want someone… If you want people to be able to be good democrats in the sense of we are in a democracy and we want people to be informed and engaged, then you need to take the advice of the Athenian author, I’m gonna screw up his name, Demosthenes, who says that Athens was a constitution based on speeches.

You need the conversations in order to have your democracy. And if you care about things like how do we handle social conflict? Well, turns out, if you give people more expression, they usually don’t have to resort toward more extreme actions and violence. If they are given a peaceful way to express themselves. It’s when they’re repressed and do not feel like they have those options, oftentimes they turn toward more extreme and dangerous and violent measures.

And so for all these reasons, and you could go for more, but I think for all these various aspects of human society, if we want them to flourish, you should care about free expression because in each of these ways, free expression makes people and society better off, even if there are going to be some negative speech. Like speech does have consequences that aren’t always positive. We’ve seen that even in the examples we gave about the reformation and the renaissance. It wasn’t a completely peaceful period. It was actually a very difficult one, but it brought about the greatest improvement in human flourishing that up until the time the world had seen and it brought, it ushered in things like the industrial revolution and the world we have today.

And so, if you want that advancement, if you want society to flourish, then really you want free expression to be the way, the means, the channel by which we resolve those challenges, we advance our knowledge and we become a better informed and thinking and thoughtful people.

Chelsea Follett: That was a great answer. Thank you again for speaking with me, David.

David Inserra: Glad to do it.