The War on Free Speech

It takes a lot to shut me up. I tend to be first past the post with an opinion, right or wrong, and not much brings me up short in that area.

I must confess, however to falling speechless and slack-jawed for a moment at the sheer gall of a CBS News Internet poll accompanying the story of two men sentenced Tuesday in the United Kingdom (“Brits get 4 years prison for Facebook riot posts,” August 17): “Is four years prison too harsh for a Facebook post?”

I don’t really even have to reach the issue of reader response (although, as I write, 50% of respondents sickeningly declare for “No, fair punishment”). The only thing possibly more appalling than the question itself asked with a straight face is the absence among multiple choice answers of “are you out of your freaking mind? Prison? For a Facebook post?”

Folks, this is not an edge case — “fire in a crowded theater” or “fighting words” spoken while brandishing molotov cocktails. It’s a clear matter of people sitting in front of computers, typing things intended to be read by other people sitting in front of other computers.

Nor, seemingly, did the Crown Prosecution Service pull a fast one with “conspiracy” charges or other trickery to make it look like this was about anything other than speech. The cases were plainly charged, the alleged crime being “inciting disorder.”

As I’ve written elsewhere, the war for humanity’s future — a war that has raged for centuries, a war in which the sides are the state versus everyone else, winner take all, and the stakes amount to nothing less than a future dominated by totalitarianism versus the slimmest shot at creating a free society — has over the last year or so been stripped to its essence as an information war. The state’s guns are very real and its victims still bleed red, but the battle will be won or lost at the level of information and communications control.

While I firmly believe that only one outcome — the end of the Westphalian nation-state — is possible, I’m surprised with the speed at which states are confirming my estimate of the situation by descending to the tactic of desperation: The frontal assault.

Over the course of only a year or so, the Wikileaks disclosures and Bradley Manning affair have pushed the US government away from the typical “damage control” approach to disclosure of embarrassing state secrets and into a policy of sparing the state public scrutiny at all costs.

Over the course of mere months, we’ve gone from “western democracies” chiding Egypt’s Mubarak regime for shutting down Internet access to stall a revolution, to San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit bureaucracy shutting down cell phone access lest its authority be “challenged.”

In a matter of a few weeks the status of “social media” has been doubly transformed — first from “a free marketplace of ideas” into a potentially dangerous venue that prisoners might abuse, and now from that into a place where communicating might make one a prisoner.

All of the foregoing, of course, assisted by lapdog media with a sudden handwringing interest in “flash mobs” and the temerity to ask questions like “is four years prison too harsh for a Facebook post?” as if the correct answer could conceivably be anything other than “are you out of your freaking mind?”

Things will certainly get worse before they get better, but the stink of fear surrounds the state and its defenders. And for good reason. They’re living on borrowed time.

Thomas L. Knapp is Senior News Analyst at the Center for a Stateless Society.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.