The Microphone at Times Square

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, January 15, 2021 / 2 Shevat 5781

Upcoming: For the foodies out there, I hope you have signed up for our series of cooking classes with celebrity chefs, beginning this Tuesday. It’s just another one of the benefits that this otherwise unpleasant pandemic has made possible.

Reading Time: Five minutes

Summary: After the January 6th insurrection, and the suspension or cancellation of President Trump’s access to several social media sites, I wanted to reflect on freedom of speech and its limitations, as well as offer a Jewish perspective on the duties of media companies and of us as consumers of media.

Here’s an urban legend I have never been able to verify. Fact or fiction, it remains instructive. The story goes that in the early days of radio, an open microphone was stationed in the Times Square neighborhood. People could line up and await their turn at the microphone, where their message would be broadcast on a local station.*

Radio was cutting edge technology then. Indeed, when it was being developed, there were individuals who could not understand why anyone would need more connectivity than that which telegraphs afforded. Well, the human voice clearly won the battle against dots and dashes.

This image of New Yorkers, never a shy breed when it comes to expressing an opinion, waiting for a chance to be heard by all, is completely believable. Apparently, however, demand for an opportunity to speak, as well as some of the comments that people made on air, put an end to this early experiment in just how far the First Amendment could be taken.

Now we all know that the First Amendment prevents Congress from limiting free speech. It doesn’t tell us what individual newspapers must do, or in our world, it doesn’t provide legal guidance on whether social media sites can censor or limit freedom of expression. Although that is true, the importance of the First Amendment extends beyond its legal context, which in part protects speech, the practice of religion and the right to assemble. It defines how Americans think about speech in general. Implicitly, as a nation of rugged individualists, we believed that speech wants to be free and unfettered just as early proponents of the internet believed that information wants to be free. So too, we want to right to protest.

Our cultural understanding of these rights and more specifically their ethos, is undergoing a period of rapid reevaluation. Cancel culture is one example of this. After the insurrection of January 6th, we saw this tendency magnified, as social media companies big and small hurried to limit or permanently ban President Trump from their platforms. For the record, the dangers of January 6th make me agree that those decisions were a necessary emergency measure. Yet by now we all know that once extreme measures are taken, those same measures are more likely to be used repeatedly in less extreme situations. This poses a challenge to freedom of speech and therefore to democracy itself.

It seems that the best way to avoid the unintended consequences of these severe if needed measures against President Trump’s incitement is for us to engage in a national discussion about speech. What could be helpful in that discussion is to look at how other countries address freedom of speech. There has been a tendency for us to imagine that the American way is the best way. For example, whenever people talk about freedom of religion, they presume that how we have done it is the only way. Yet France has taken a very different approach to freedom of religion then we have. Sometimes different doesn’t mean worse. It just means, well, different.

When it comes to freedom of speech, Germany has not viewed this right as an absolute, but has balanced it with other social goods. That’s what their Nazi era taught them. They developed a principle known as self-defending democracy (streitbare Demokratie). Offensive or indecent speech is curtailed, as is speech or political parties that would undermine the state or democracy itself.

I think it would be a mistake to imagine that what happened nine days ago at the Capitol was a singular incident. We are confronted with a rise in hate speech, nationally and locally, as the recent attacks on Portland’s Jewish themed restaurants, Shalom Y’all and Aviv demonstrate. In such a polarized time, it is not clear that the laws we have on the books are sufficient to both protect freedom of speech and our democracy.

We should also be aware that reevaluating our laws around free speech is only one branch of a proper response to our deeply divided nation. There needs to be a change of heart as well, and we all need to consider carefully not only what we say, but where we choose to get our information from. As a folk saying goes, “once you see something, you can’t unsee it.” The same is true when we get our information from unreliable sources. According to a 2019 Pew survey, most Americans now get their news from social media. Even if we don’t believe what we read, it gets lodged in our heads, and ultimately influences us.

In addition to the fact that such social media sites aren’t beholden to agreed upon journalistic standards in the same way that newspapers are, there is a spiritual danger here as well. Rabbi Abraham Yisrael Kook was the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of British Palestine. He stated that an aim of newspapers must be to elevate the community. Thus, its presentation ought to be one level above its readership and refuse to cater to our baser instincts. Simultaneously, it should only be a level above, so that this uplifting approach is accessible to its readers.

I believe we need new laws that protect speech and democracy. I believe we each have a responsibility to chose with care where we get our news. I hold it as self-evident that we should strive to find reliable sources that push our understanding while elevating us as individuals. I have faith that if we self-censor, we can avoid the dangers of laws that do that for us. I believe that the tongue can heal and the tongue can cure.

What do you believe?

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

*If you have ever heard the following tale, or know a source for it, please let me know. I have tried to track it down for years.

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. Please consider using the questions above for discussion at your Shabbat table.

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