I worry a lot about the current state of free speech. It’s literally my job to worry about it, because I teach a class on the topic of free speech. But after reading through my students’ final exams, I’m feeling a lot better. If you’re also a worrier, maybe you’ll feel better if I share the good news.
Three days before the exam, I gave the students the final essay question in advance, and it was nothing if not topical:
- In April 2022, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) revealed to Congress that it had created a “Disinformation Governance Board.” Despite the word “Governance” in the Board’s name, DHS claimed that the Board had only an advisory role. Specifically, it would advise other parts of DHS about how best to fight disinformation and misinformation affecting homeland security. For example, the Board might suggest to other DHS units (a) how to combat false information that human smugglers disseminate to migrant workers in other countries to encourage them to surge to the U.S. border; and (b) how to combat false information that Russia disseminates to influence U.S. elections or U.S. support for Ukraine.
- In one paragraph, clearly marked as paragraph A, identify at least two things we’ve studied this semester from which you could argue that the Disinformation Governance Board is a good idea. (You may identify more than two things, but identify at least two.) You should “identify” these things in enough detail to make clear to me that you know what you’re talking about and that you’re not just tossing a word salad. This part of the question is worth 40 points.
- In a second paragraph, clearly marked as paragraph B, identify at least two things we’ve studied this semester from which you could argue that the Disinformation Governance Board is a bad idea. (You may identify more than two things, but identify at least two.) You should “identify” these things in enough detail to make clear to me that you know what you’re talking about and that you’re not just tossing a word salad. This part of the question is worth 40 points.
- In a third paragraph, clearly marked as paragraph C, state whether you think the reasons in paragraph A or paragraph B are stronger, and why. This part of the question is worth 20 points.
For all of your paragraphs, please confine yourself to material from the course. I will be grading based on how well you apply material from the course, not on how persuasively you can argue from outside sources.
I was obviously hoping to make the students apply what they’ve learned to a live controversy, but then the controversy died. The afternoon before the exam, DHS “paused” the Disinformation Governance Board and the person chosen to lead it resigned. It was too late to change the question, but I read the answers with more than the usual interest.
On the whole, they were outstanding. In favor of the Board, students insisted that “Truth is necessary if you want to have a healthy community.” They cited Sir Roger Scruton for the proposition that “a world without truth is a world without trust.” The Board, they said, would be promoting the essential process of correcting error, and “if we truly wish to pursue the truth, would we not want to be informed when we might be wrong?” Some suggested that if the Board did its job properly, it might improve diversity of thought, by “encourag[ing], and in some cases forc[ing] people out of their ‘echo chambers.’” Many pointed out that the evolution of communications technologies over the past 150 years has meant that, as one student wrote, “A lot of news these days lacks context and it is very easy to create a fake story.” These falsehoods can do real harm both to the nation and to individual citizens. Finally, a few referred to our readings on the strategies advertisers use to trigger more-or-less automatic responses; if interests hostile to our national well-being were trying to “press our buttons” in these ways, that would be worth knowing about.
In short, to the extent that the Board chose to fight “disinformation” by adding what is true rather than suppressing what is false, my students found quite a lot to be said in favor of that project. Their defenses of the Board compared very favorably with anything I heard from DHS or the White House while this issue was in the news.
Ah, but what about the other side? The students identified all the most popular arguments against the Board and then some. Nearly all of them channeled the classical defense of free speech based on our fallibility and our corrigibility. As one student put it succinctly, “First, the ‘misinformation’ might be true. Second, we can learn from the misinformation even if it is false.” And the people on the Board are, of course, as fallible as the rest of us: “Throughout history, humanity has shown great proficiency when it comes to being wrong. Often times what people are wrong about is what they’re most confident in.” Because the people on the Board are humans, we should not expect them to operate in an entirely disinterested fashion, acting from only the purest motives, in perpetuity. “A board that is designed to restrict and prevent the spread of misinformation could easily be used with other motives, such as controlling different narratives in the press.” And even if the board is not trying to shade the truth, “they may be subconsciously biased towards their political or religious views.”
Most students also recognized that the drawbacks to the proposed Board were at least as serious if the Board succeeded as if the Board failed—because having just one version of the truth, officially recognized as such, might “make people less inclined to search for the truth because they’d assume they already knew” it. “It should be the job of the individual to find the truth on their own and learn to distinguish the truth from falsehood.” These concerns are greatest if the Board is suppressing speech, because “preventing people from being exposed to different information (even if wrong) . . . restrict[s] their capacity to defend their argument.” And the name “Governance Board,” one noted, implies an ability to “be directly involved in passing laws and making rules restricting speech, which goes against one of our country’s foundational, core beliefs.”
But even without suppression, the promulgation of any kind of official, government-sanctioned side of a legitimate argument raised some of the same concerns for the students. They wanted citizens to “understand what others’ views are” and have an opportunity to “talk it out, persuade each other, and find the truth together.” “Too much protection can be a bad thing because it can shield us from necessary challenges.” “Embracing antifragility means accepting that we are faced with problems in life and to try not to avoid these problems because they can make us stronger.”
On balance, my class overwhelmingly (17-2) thought the Board was unwise—“based on the idea that we have complete information and are immune to mistakes. I think this an extremely prideful and dangerous way of thinking.” They are suspicious of propaganda, and they fear a government agency designed to promulgate truth almost as much as they fear a government agency designed to suppress falsehood. Even if the Board could “create a safe society with less misinformation,” it would have “the side effect of being a rigid and stagnant society.” By contrast, “A less protective situation is overall better because people are exposed to more information and through discussion, are able to get closer to the truth.” “It is necessary for people to argue over facts.”
Am I cherry-picking? Maybe a little; they weren’t all A papers. But most of them were, and they left me more hopeful about our culture of free speech than anything I saw any 19 adults writing last week. The kids are going to be alright, as long as they remember they’re not all right.