Yesterday, the Chair of the U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis wrote an ominous letter to the CEO of Google. For the second time, the Chair is leaning on Google to police and remove “dangerous climate misinformation” on YouTube. The letter doesn’t threaten direct legal action against Google, but it nonetheless raises serious concern because it runs so counter to the free speech tradition and the value of a robust internet.
According to the Chair, “YouTube has been driving millions of viewers to climate misinformation videos every day, a shocking revelation that runs contrary to Google’s important missions of fighting misinformation and promoting climate action.” The Chair states her own unequivocal commitment to “promoting ambitious federal policy that will … eliminate barriers to action, including those as pervasive and harmful as climate denial and climate misinformation.” It’s hard not to see the veiled threat here.
Note the letter’s subtle casting of the consumers of information as passive actors that must be protected, rather than rational actors who choose what information to consume, a choice they’re entitled to make. She says “YouTube has been driving millions of viewers to climate misinformation” and that Google should “correct the record for millions of users who have been exposed to climate misinformation.” This language strips accountability and action from the viewers, as if they are a captive audience held down and forced to view climate denial videos with eyelid clamps like a scene from A Clockwork Orange. But if that content is promoted and viewed, that’s because there’s a consumer demand for it. The passive language used in the letter exemplifies the paternalism that often lurks behind censorship: for their own welfare, we must protect the public from information they wish to consume.
Note also the absolutism woven into the letter. Google cannot both be committed to climate action and committed to an open culture of public discourse. In the war for humanity’s survival, one priority must dominate above all others.
The letter also relies on the tired tactic of impugning speakers’ motives. Anyone who expresses “climate misinformation” on YouTube just wants “to protect polluters and their profits at the expense of the American people.” It’s impossible for an absolutist to consider that views opposed to her own might be sincerely held. Plus, research has shown that political views frequently do not line up with individual self-interest. Only a shallow thinker or someone with an agenda assumes a political viewpoint is rooted in a selfish motive.
As for the constitutional implications of the letter, there is no question that the federal government cannot impose on Google the duty to remove “climate misinformation” or “climate denial” content. False speech is not exiled from the sanctuary of First Amendment protection. Of course, some false speech can be penalized, such as libel, slander, or fraud. But these are circumstances where there’s some other legally cognizable harm associated with the false statement for which recovery is warranted. There is no general rule that false speech is unprotected.
Government should never be in the position of arbitrating truth. Particularly in the context of hotly debated political controversies, allowing government to label one side as gospel and penalize dissidents opens the door to legally enshrined orthodoxy. As Justice Robert Jackson said 80 years ago: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” That’s what the power to ban “climate misinformation” entails.
Indeed, government refereeing of truth will almost always shade toward discrimination against disfavored viewpoints. For example, there is “misinformation” out there on both sides of the climate debate. Those who peddle wild doomsday predictions are just as unhinged as those denying the realities of climate change. Yet the Chair does not propose to censor such misinformation.
When I see such zealous effort to shut someone up, I can’t help but ask myself why the censor is so afraid. The targeting of this speech is likely only draw attention to it. Why worry about the hacks? I’ve always believed what John Milton expressed centuries ago in the Areopagitica: “Let [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” Of course, that doesn’t mean that falsehoods lack convincing power, but truth in the end has the edge. Rather than pick the winner in advance, we do much better by letting truth emerge through open debate, bloodied but victorious.