In July 1722, James Franklin, publisher of The New-England Courant, was jailed for publishing something offensive to the government. At that time, James wasn’t a fan of his 16-year-old kid brother, Benjamin, writing for him. To get around James’s annoyance, Ben would write under the pseudonym Silence Dogood.
With big brother jailed, Ben did what any little brother would: He published the July 2-9 editions himself – without James’s permission. In the July 9 paper, “Silence Dogood” powerfully rebuked the government indirectly for violating James’s rights.
“Without Freedom of Thought, there can be no such thing as Wisdom; and no such thing as public liberty, without Freedom of Speech,” he wrote. “[A]nd in those wretched countries where a man cannot call his tongue his own, he can scarce call anything his own. Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech; a thing terrible to public traitors.”
Three hundred years later, Ben Franklin’s words remain deeply instructive. We now find ourselves immersed in an age-old battle – one over truth and the arbiters thereof. Who decides the exact truth? How will it be enforced? Can government administer “truth” without becoming authoritarian? History teaches otherwise.
This isn’t me waxing philosophical. Amid valid concerns over misinformation and fake news online, politicians are setting themselves up as arbiters of truth to protect their power – and Colorado is ground-zero.
In February, State Sen. Kerry Donovan, who is running against U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, introduced SB21-132. Her bill would originally have created a ministry of truth under the guise of a “digital communications division” and “commission” to regulate online companies “such as social media platforms or media-sharing platforms.”
Donovan would have mandated companies register with the government or face a class 2 misdemeanor and potentially a massive $5,000-per-day fine. The ministry of truth would be empowered to investigate, hold hearings and penalize platforms over claims they “allowed” people to spread falsities, untruths, disinformation, fake news, etc. – as declared false, untrue, fake, etc., by said ministry.
Thankfully, the bill was watered down to “study” something similar. Yet the fact that a leading state senator and serious candidate for Congress would propose the idea – one increasingly advocated by others – is significant.
It’s especially important given the legislature is moving to inject government “truth-detecting” into our political process. At Colorado Politics Tuesday, I detailed provisions in State Sen. Steve Fenberg’s SB21-250 concerning recalls.
Coloradans have the constitutional right to recall elected officials. Under statute, recall petitions must include a “general statement” informing voters of their grounds for recall. One part of Fenberg’s bill enables an incumbent to review a recall petition in advance and then submit a “statement of the incumbent” that must be included on the published recall petition.
I can conjure up a million scenarios where a recall effort is launched against a politician based on an interpretation of the facts that is both factual and up for debate. The politician in question then gets to respond, on the petition itself. “These constituents are bitter over losing an election, doing their best to create falsehoods to smear my good name.” It’s suddenly the government official’s words against the citizen’s.
SB250 says that the general statement “SHALL not” level any falsehoods. As a friend texted me, “Does the incumbent who gets to write his statement on the recall have to state the truth too? Or is that truthfulness review only for the recallers? Seems like a one-way street. Imagine if the King of England got to decide the truthfulness of the revolutionaries’ rhetoric?”
Let’s be clear on something: There is such a thing as objective truth and objective fact. Furthermore, no Coloradan should lie to recall a politician any more than a politician should lie in a campaign ad.
Yet truth and facts are almost always up for interpretation and debate. It seems far better to let people suss out what’s true and false – which ideas are good, which are dangerous – in open discourse.
As but one example, Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election. He is our legitimate president. At the same time, there are some valid allegations of voter fraud, voting irregularities and the like that have been presented. Yet the media, social media and government officials automatically declare any such claim to be “false” and forcefully silence them.
When such censorship happens – and elites campaign for even more – those with a conspiratorial mindset find their conspiracies reinforced, not meaningfully challenged. History is awash with examples of totalitarian societies which attempt speech control, only to become a diversion in itself. This is not the hallmark of a healthy, free society.
Let’s be real. Politicians do this thing called “spin” (lie?) all the time. So, why would we want the “spinners” to determine what’s true and what’s not – and then have the power of enforcement? The last thing we need is James Franklin 2022 – jailed for offending government officials with “untruths.”
Jimmy Sengenberger is host of “The Jimmy Sengenberger Show” on News/Talk 710 KNUS. He also hosts “Jimmy at the Crossroads,” a webshow and podcast in partnership with The Washington Examiner.