Challenging COVID-19 Censorship: A Practical Perspective

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In the late twentieth century, debates over free speech were typically resolved by citing the First Amendment and observing that freedom of expression was a basic human right. But today, that line of argument is no longer sufficient.

Those of us who favor free speech must prove to a skeptical audience that it is a right worth protecting. Since people of good faith now find arguments for censorship persuasive, these arguments should be met on their own terms.

A common view both in California and nationally is that important matters can be resolved by duly elected officials and their appointed experts. The reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic provides an example. Many Californians agreed that the governor, state and county health officials, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) should handle the pandemic response. Once a state or county health officer promulgated a policy it was the citizen’s responsibility to follow these pronouncements without objection.

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This approach makes sense on its face. Qualified experts chosen by our elected leaders should tell us how to deal with a public health emergency. Anyone using misinformation, disinformation, or malinformation to oppose official policies is merely sewing confusion and potentially reducing compliance, leading to unneeded death and suffering. From this perspective, the logical response is to shut down opposing voices since they are jeopardizing public safety.

This vision of a wise expert class protecting the public from inappropriate information has deep roots in political thought going all the way back to Plato’s Republic. Although Plato’s ideal city did not hold elections, it was ruled by a highly educated and public‐​spirited elite empowered to control the flow of information.

But while in ancient Greece, it may have been possible for a small group of experts to accumulate all or most of the relevant information needed to make policy, this is no longer feasible in a complex, modern society. By March 2020, COVID-19 was affecting numerous countries where policymakers were taking different approaches and doctors were trying different treatments. An ideal response would require analyzing all these responses and their results.

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