We are in a precarious state in which activists from both major parties in Colorado openly call for censorship, although they avoid using the term. This trend should terrify any sensible person, because censorship is incompatible with a free society and tends toward general authoritarianism.
In December, I wrote about conservatives who wish to censor dozens of books. Now, two Democratic legislators, Senator Lisa Cutter and Rep. Lorena García, intend to ask the attorney general for advice on how to censor “misinformation and disinformation” on the internet. At issue is Senate Bill 84.
The Ministry of Truth
What Cutter and García seek to create is in effect a Ministry of Truth, in which government plays final arbiter of what is truth and censors opposing views. Only someone utterly blind to the lessons of history could propose or endorse such reckless foolishness.
In part, the bill asks the attorney general, in order to “prevent and combat the sharing and spreading of misinformation and disinformation,” to “establish an initiative to encourage respectful engagement and discourse” and to “develop and share a curriculum . . . to facilitate productive and honest conversations.”
That part of the bill does not call for censorship; it merely calls on the attorney general to do something that is not properly his job (or her job; currently the AG is Phil Weiser) and for which he is not remotely qualified. It’s the attorney general’s job to enforce the laws of the state, not to promote “discourse” and “conversations” that he subjectively regards as “respectful” and “honest.” Any attorney general who, in his hubris, proclaimed himself capable of ably performing such a task would, by that fact, prove that he is not.
If some private organization wishes to promote conversations of a sort that it prefers, great. But this is not properly the purview of the attorney general’s office. In effect, the bill calls on government to officially sanction and elevate discourse that government agents prefer, and that is not something government should be doing. Do Cutter and García seriously not see the problems in inflating this trial balloon for a government propaganda machine?
The bill gets much worse, directing the attorney general to “study how the internet and other media channels, including social media platforms, are used to share and spread misinformation and disinformation.”
Then the bill directs the attorney general to submit a report that “must also include recommendations for state legislation to prevent the use of the internet for conveying misinformation and disinformation,” as well as legislation “concerning civil liability for a company that enables or fails to act in preventing the sharing and proliferation of misinformation and disinformation with its algorithm and websites.” The bill goes into additional details regarding the study and report.
Notice that the bill does not ask the attorney general to opine as to whether the state should seek to “prevent the use of the internet for conveying misinformation and disinformation,” as determined by government agents. Rather, the bill takes that goal for granted and merely asks the attorney general for advice on how to proceed with that comprehensive program of censorship. And never mind, I guess, that such proposed authoritarian legislation flagrantly violates the First Amendment as well as Colorado’s Bill of Rights, and thereby directs the attorney general to violate his oath of office.
Consider too the profound conceit necessary to imagine that legislators in a state with less than two percent of the U.S. population can “prevent the use of the internet for conveying misinformation and disinformation,” given the internet is global in nature. They don’t call it the “world wide web” for nothing. Just as a practical matter, this bill is absurd.
The larger problem is that government agents are not capable of reliably distinguishing truth from “misinformation and disinformation” even if they wanted to do so. Nor are government agents angels who always want to tell the truth. Instead, as we can see from millennia of government abuses, very often state actors declare that the truth is that which furthers their own power and prejudices. A government with the power to declare what is true and to punish anyone who says otherwise is a government with the power to bury any truth that threatens the ruling class. George Orwell’s novel 1984 was a warning, not a road map.
Recently I wrote about the popular eugenics movement in Colorado of a century ago. Back then, you could have found leading doctors, scientists, educators, and lawmakers who would have stood up to declare that eugenics was based on established scientific fact and that any claim to the contrary was “misinformation and disinformation.” Imagine what might have happened if that movement had become even more powerful than it then was, had infiltrated government even more deeply, and had operated in an environment of government censorship created by a pre-internet version of Bill 84.
Regarding the bit about civil liability, the bill apparently wants to open up platforms such as Instagram and Substack to civil liability, not merely for allowing speech that clearly violates objective laws concerning incitement to violence and such, but for allowing any “proliferation of misinformation and disinformation,” again as determined by government agents. This is a recipe for turning nominally private companies into puppets for government propaganda.
Not every form of speech is or should be protected by the First Amendment. For example, if someone posted a sign soliciting the services of a hit man, that would be the sort of thing with which law enforcement should get involved. You don’t have a right to incite people to violence in specific situations, or to defraud people doing business with you, or to hook loudspeakers up to someone’s house to share your message with the inhabitants, or to slander people, or to publish someone else’s copyrighted book as your own. Government already has due authority to act in such cases.
You do, however, normally have a right to spread what government agents may consider, or may opportunistically declare to be, “misinformation and disinformation.” A government with the power to censor misinformation is necessarily a government with the power to censor the truth.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
Our unofficial motto at Complete Colorado is “Always free, never fake, ” but annoyingly enough, our reporters, columnists and staff all want to be paid in actual US dollars rather than our preferred currency of pats on the back and a muttered kind word. Fact is that there’s an entire staff working every day to bring you the most timely and relevant political news (updated twice daily) from around the state on Complete’s main page aggregator, as well as top-notch original reporting and commentary on Page Two.
CLICK HERE TO LADLE A LITTLE GRAVY ON THE CREW AT COMPLETE COLORADO. You’ll be giving to the Independence Institute, the not-for-profit publisher of Complete Colorado, which makes your donation tax deductible. But rest assured that your giving will go specifically to the Complete Colorado news operation. Thanks for being a Complete Colorado reader, keep coming back.