The late Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson made an astute pronouncement regarding the role of government in managing the citizenry. He wrote, “It is not the function of our government to keep the citizen from error; it is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error.” This kind of thinking has served the United States well for almost two and a half centuries.
Justice Jackson would have been shocked and saddened to see the results of a recent Pew Research Center poll which assessed public perception of the role of government in controlling false information. The poll reveals that almost half of Americans (48 percent) support the government taking action to restrict false information in the public sphere. Worse yet, those Americans are willing to yield to government information control even “if it means losing some freedom to access and publish content.”
Justice Jackson was a bright and independent thinker in his time. He was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1942 by President Franklin Roosevelt. He is the last justice to serve on the Supreme Court who did not have a law degree. He was appointed by President Truman to serve as the United States’ chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals — and won praise for his management of such uncharted legal territory. Given his experience prosecuting Nazis, Jackson knew well the dangers of information flow being determined or restricted by dictatorial regimes.
Jackson’s quote about the government playing no role in keeping citizens from error is consistent with the thinking of the nation’s constitutional framers. The nation’s founders particularly feared letting monarchs unilaterally determine what information and ideas were approved for citizen consumption. Thus, the founders created a republic that limited such government authority. Those respondents in the Pew poll who entrust the government to decide what is “false” are abandoning fundamental philosophies on which the First Amendment was created. Nobody should assume the government sufficiently knows what information is, indeed, “false,” or much less, needs to be restricted. Further, the government itself can be and has often been the disseminator of false information.
The First Amendment was put in place with the confidence that free citizens debating robustly could eventually sort out the accurate from the false. Founding father Thomas Jefferson said a free people can “tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” A free press and citizens speaking freely can combat societal misinformation more effectively than politicians or government bureaucrats. The First Amendment was created in the first place precisely to let citizens referee the information landscape and question “information” from the authorities.
Only the most sinister people in a culture support the promulgation of false information, but that’s not the root concern here. The issue is how a society sorts out the false from the sensible and who gets to umpire.
Government leaders, no matter how noble, are still self-interested to a large degree and surely don’t have a corner on common sense or reality. The accuracy or falsehood of information is not always clear cut, as Americans surely know in these confusing times. The picture of reality is quite hazy on national matters today ranging from Afghanistan to COVID protocols to rising crime rates, and so on.
World War II challenged the United States in more severe ways than anything being faced today. As a recent Library of Congress study reported, the Office of War Information at that time became aware of the massive rumors and misinformation floating around the nation. The OWI acknowledged that its own lack of transparency was a cause of speculation and rumors. OWI organizers responded with more robust openness, writing at the time, “Rumors can be converted to positive value if they are studied as a guide to information gaps which need to be filled — not by rumor denials but by intensive information programs.”
Americans of any political leaning should be concerned hearing White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki proudly proclaim the administration’s efforts to “flag” for Facebook any pandemic messages counter to White House approved content, as she did earlier this summer. Worse yet, this effort is conducted in collaboration with social media outlets. Instead of flagging as disinformation material the White House doesn’t like, the administration should simply use its huge megaphone to inject its own perspective into the public dialogue. If that rhetoric is sufficiently convincing, the White House will have nothing to worry about.
Censorship of unwanted content only works when accompanied by the hammer of authoritarianism. Free societies address questionable content with debate and more information, but apparently 48 percent of Americans still need to grasp that notion.
Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.