Greenwald’s Free Speech Absolutism and Twitter’s Foley Ban

Sometimes I’m glad that Glenn Greenwald won’t heed my calls to just shut up and count the money, because, as the living embodiment of everything philistine and dishonest about the celebrity left, he is endlessly educational. Today’s lesson: the bogusness and stupidity of mainstream free speech mythology.

Greenwald recently took to his blog to lament Twitter’s ban on posting the video of ISIS’s alleged beheading of journalist James Foley. As with so much the fearlessly adversarial™ GG does, there is a lot of  wailing and keening, but very little in the way of precise advocacy.

Advocacy-free handwringing is Greenwald’s bread and butter, but even if it weren’t he’d still be ill-suited to condemning Twitter in concrete terms. He is a proponent of what is charitably called free speech absolutism, which is the doctrine that neither Congress, nor any other policy-making body, shall abridge the right of (mostly rich) white guys to say, print, build and sell whatever they like. This has led him to five years defending a murder-inciting white supremacist during his lawyer days; support for the Citizens United Supreme Court decision enshrining the constitutional rights of corporations; support for a Supreme Court reversal of a ban on animal torture porn; and opposition to a community’s attempt to ban Chick-fil-a from its neighborhood on the grounds that the owner funds anti-LGBTQ political groups.

From the standpoint of free speech absolutism, Twitter’s ban on the Foley video occupies a a rare gray zone for a privileged, binary thinker like Greenwald, between the speech rights of Twitter users, and the speech rights of Twitter the corporation. For the advocate of corporate speech rights, all Twitter speech is indisputably Twitter’s speech, so Twitter is at liberty, both legally and on principle, to ban anything it pleases, in the same way The Intercept is free to allot commenting rights only to ardent fans and cherry-picked trolls. Greenwald concedes as much, suggesting that overt control of user contributions on social networks is a purely ‘prudential matter’, though a vexing one.

Putting aside the somewhat laughable extent to which he presents the aggressive shaping of our discourse by “executives driven by profit motive, drawn from narrow socioeconomic and national backgrounds” as something hideously new, and seemingly remote from his own current place in the food chain, Greenwald is perfectly correct in general terms to wring his hands over Twitter’s ban. But naturally he gets it all backwards. This passage neatly encapsulates his misplaced, but typical, emphasis:

Twitter refused to follow their edict through to its logical conclusion when they announced they would not ban the account of the New York Post even though that tabloid featured a graphic photo of the Foley beheading on its front page, which it promoted from Twitter. The only rationale for refusing to do so is that banning the account of a newspaper because Twitter executives dislike its front page powerfully underscores how dangerous their newly announced policy is.

Surely Twitter’s ostensible great gift to society is the power it gives nobodies to participate more directly in public discourse. Therefore, to any real advocate of free, democratic speech, the banning of small, powerless people from Twitter places all the danger front and center, with no underscoring required. But trust Greenwald to hit this ludicrous, bathetic note on behalf of Murdoch’s reactionary tabloid. He has, after all, spent the past fourteen months touting the benefits of mediation to whistleblowing and the primacy of billionaires to the truth-telling enterprise. While implicitly warning us against the slippery slope from banning nobodies to — horrors — banning the New York Post, it never occurs to him that Twitter’s two-tiered Foley policy only underscores how power and free speech have always worked.

Of course, misreading power is a vital function of the free speech purist, and a crucial part of that is misreading first amendment history. So in the hackneyed civics lesson elsewhere in the piece, Greenwald trots out the usual hate-mongers who, as we’ve been told again and again, are the unwitting vanguard of free speech:

…free speech defenders such as the ACLU so often represent and defend racists and others with heinous views in free speech cases: because that’s where free speech erosions become legitimized in the first instance when endorsed or acquiesced to.

The defense of hate speech is a cause much-beloved to liberals, appealing as it does to their vanity — look at how even-handed and consistent I am! — their love of simplistic false equations, and above all, their starry-eyed conviction that sound arguments and law are the building blocks of a just society.  For the free speech purist, the state is the embodiment of fair play. If it permits Nazis to march in Skokie then surely it must, and will, permit communists to do likewise. If it permits homophobes to harass grief-stricken funeral attendees, it must likewise permit Occupy activists to picket the homes of billionaires.

Even a casual acquaintance with the facts shows this is utter nonsense. In fact, free speech is always provisional and generally commensurate with the utility/harmlessness of the speech to power. There is quite a lot a sexist, heteronormative, white supremacist, imperialist ruling class finds useful in hate speech, which is, after all, the language of dominance. It is reactionary, not dissident. Radical speech is far more provocative. Therefore, historically, it is radicals and not hate groups that have overwhelmingly been the main targets of political speech repression. Hate speech, far from being the canary in the coal mine, is more like the foreman, keeping the workers in line, in part by keeping them at each others’ throats.

If hate speech has a relationship to First Amendment common law, it is that concessions the state makes to it sometimes ripple backwards to prior decisions against radicals, long after they can produce any material benefit. Example: Between 1949 and 1958, the government persecuted members of the Communist Party under the Smith Act, which made it illegal to advocate the overthrow of the government. By way of this, and multiple anti-Communist witch hunts happening in parallel, the Communist Party was effectively destroyed, and a thick residue of anti-radicalism persists to this day. There is absolutely nothing in the history of U. S. white supremacism that remotely compares with this, which is only one of many crackdowns on dissident speech by which left-wing radicalism was disciplined and largely eradicated.  The House Un-American Activities Committee put this disparity explicitly when it abandoned it’s investigation of the Klan before it began to focus on Communists.  “After all, the KKK is an old American institution.” committee member John E. Rankin said at the time. (source)

The Brandenburg vs Ohio case in 1969, concerning incendiary speeches made by members of the Ku Klux Klan, also makes the disparity exceptionally clear. In striking down an Ohio criminal syndicalism statute under which members of the Klan had been convicted, the Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot punish inflammatory speech unless that speech is likely to incite imminent lawless action. That decision led to the reversal of prior decisions against radicals, the most recent of which was Dennis vs. The United States, a CPUSA Smith Act Case which was by that time eighteen years old. In summary, on a rare occasion when white supremacists ran afoul of the law on speech grounds in a way that radicals had for decades, they were let off the hook by the Supreme Court. Greenwald’s and the ACLU’s potted history has it all entirely backwards.

The perennial touting of hate mongers as the free speech vanguard can be seen as just one more privilege they enjoy, and the erasure of radicals from the story as yet more repression. Of course, no one of any consequence is going to discuss the actual history, least of all Greenwald, whose career is built on selling bitter-coated sugar pills to self-consciously disaffected rubes, and whose immunity from state interference requires a more pleasing explanation than that he’s perfectly harmless, even helpful, to power. His interrogative title, “Should Twitter, Facebook and Google Executives be the Arbiters of What We See and Read?”, sets the tone for the piece, which asks fashionable questions without providing unfashionable answers.  One comes away with very little other than the sense that Greenwald thinks free speech is very, very important. For the handwringing cult he represents, that’s more than enough.


A Radical Look at Free Speech

Authoritarian Asshole Erik Loomis’s Free Speech Problem

Free Kathryn Bigelow!

Noam Chomsky vs. Aaron Swartz

Noam Chomsky’s Insistent Whitewashing of State Repression

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53 Responses to Greenwald’s Free Speech Absolutism and Twitter’s Foley Ban

  1. b-psycho says:

    Of all the people to lament the control of information by elites…

    Great point about how lopsided application of 1st amendment is, btw. Claiming an open dialog that is just now under threat is ridiculous when one side is and has always been backed by force.

  2. diane says:

    The interrogative title, “Should Twitter, Facebook and Google Executives be the Arbiters of What We See and Read?”, sets the tone for the piece, which asks fashionable questions without providing unfashionable answers.

    Bolding mine. Generally speaking, when a person comes across that Should word – in offline/online and quite heavily traveled – nooz/editorial sites, they should immediately be on guard as to the fact that the piece will ultimately be sand bag[s]ed see sawed into sanctifying that Should word.

  3. b-psycho says:

    That said, I do find it revealing when Citizens United is brought up in passing by progs & other non radicals. Reconciling their stated fears with what already is the case & their refusal to attack corporate status itself looks impossible.

  4. pnuwb says:

    If the law “permits Nazis to march in Skokie then surely it must also permit communists to do likewise”. Had to top reading there. The most beautiful parody of GG liberalism I’ve ever heard. xxxx

  5. Tatenda Skylar says:

    The KKK vs. commies comparison is pretty revealing.

    And then look at the current situation. Blacks, “outside agitators,” etc. don’t even have the right to stand in one spot. Yet Wilson supporters can walk right up to sneer in their faces.

    Dunno if this is gonna chase the free speech absolutism out of me Tarzie, but I’m glad you finally elaborated.

  6. evdebs says:

    As usual, in your efforts to disparage liberals, progressives and free speech advocates, you get your facts wrong.

    Here’s an easy one: Junius Scales, a WWII vet, was arrested in 1954, years after the Denis case, solely for being a member of the communist party. He refused to rat out his friends and former colleagues. He was convicted and sentenced after seven years of appeals, and went to the pen in 1961. Kennedy commuted his sentence in Dec. ’62. He died forty years later.

    I’m not sure what your politics are. Likudist?

    • Tarzie says:

      So Kennedy commuted the sentence of a communist party member long after his life had been ruined and the Communist Party had been destroyed. In what way does this disprove a single thing I’ve written? What facts did I get wrong?

      Reading comprehension does not seem to be your strong suit.

      Likudist? You’re a fucking moron.

  7. Tatenda Skylar says:

    Forgot to mention something. I know most of these sites have censorship policies, content restrictions, etc. that they generally apply. I think there’s something a bit weird about, say, slasher movies getting Facebook pages while real life executions are banned topics, but whatever. It’s just to make the sites more welcoming to users. The thing that irks me about all this is the way these sites have specifically done PR overtime on the Foley execution. My understanding is that a lot of journalists knew and liked Foley. But dozens of journalists die in warzones yearly, most of them not white. Nobody gave a shit about any of them. Not to mention, uh, the thousands upon thousands of normal citizens who are dying. The grief is fine, the special treatment just seems like part of a ramp-up for more fucking war.

    • Tarzie says:

      The grief is fine, the special treatment just seems like part of a ramp-up for more fucking war.

      Yes, definitely.

    • teal says:

      “It’s just to make the sites more welcoming to users.”

      It’s more nefarious than that. Fantasy executions abound, because they passively inoculate us against real-life pain and suffering. The real-life images, in turn, are suppressed to remind us that it’s impolite (and impolitic) to pay attention to the r-l p-and-s.

      • Tatenda Skylar says:

        Yeah that’s a simplification. Here we go.
        I think you’re on the right track, but that’s about it. Your line of reasoning is useless. The fantasy inoculates us against the real? Is that why so many movies have sex scenes, but so few have sexy scenes? Video, image, audio, we are talking about communication formats, period. So here is how we are inoculated: say you’re a kid and you’re around a veteran uncle who, maybe he’s a sociopath, or maybe he’s repressing his darkest feelings desperately, but either way he starts grimly bragging about his kills. If you’re a kid, this’ll impress you and scare you, and you’ll act unafraid and eager to hear more, because he’s an authority. You will become used to conversations about killing people. Then, next time your country is rallying for a war, you will not be shocked at all by the thought of people being killed. Politeness does not factor in here. Neither does inoculation to the real. What happens here is the conflation of the real with the unreal. You will support the real war because you are used to its unreal representation, never being exposed to its reality, which with almost no doubt, still has the potential to churn your stomach.
        Now back to slashers. Some slashers amount to slapstick with fluid physics demonstrations. Friday the 13th? Halloween? They’re just goofy. I think other slashers, and horror movies in general, are in a way better moral position than many lighthearted action movies, if we’re gonna moralize. A movie like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or The Loved Ones, or even Come and See? These movies use the logic of the unreal to reintroduce real feelings of disgust, hatred, and fear. These movies may even do more to teach people killing is bad than liveleaks footage does, in the long run. I’ve met dumb highschoolers who watch executions “for fun,” but can’t make it through a serious horror movie.
        Not sure where to end this post, but that’s all that comes to mind right now.

  8. nicecore says:

    Thank you for this and the “related” posts, which had a profound effect on me and made me want to learn more about anarchism.

    • Tarzie says:


      Here’s a couple other blogs you might like:

      Cats Not War
      Once Upon a Time

    • robertmstahl says:

      I agree! Thank you Tarzie ever so much. The issue addressed as it is here has bothered me more and more now than ever, leaving me in a kind of quicksand, but you deliver. 30 years ago I thought I could do something to save the eventual corruption of fresh water supply in the state I live in (AL) with the largest amount of the underground stuff, among other things being ‘liberal’ attended to. Now, having learned quite a bit, nevertheless, it has come to seem a like theTower of Babel is nothing, if not infinite, and with little to actually participate in, in lieu of the ‘wall’ that is. You make this feeble brain of mine just stop and listen, again. “Life fills in what is missing,” said the late Francisco J. Varela.

      Praise for the living, then!

  9. B. Everett says:

    Somewhat off-topic, but somehow I missed Chomsky’s new gig:

  10. diane says:

    ‘off topic’, …though, …. dominoes ..(or dominos, as one prefers … familiarizes wit/with ….et al … )..

    loved much of Arthur Silber’s last two days of ever so gentle and tender commentary regarding those whose lives have become so unspeakably painful and punishing that they: seriously consider suicide but weigh on ‘trying to stay afloat’ yet again; …. seriously consider, then halfheartedly attempt to commit suicide; …. and, …. lastly, …. consider … then successfully commit SUICIDE …

    one of my deviations from his commentary, is that it has never been proven – in the physics world – that one’s non-physical energies don’t remain, when their physical bodies say good night.

    • diane says:

      (Even more – “Off Topic” – … intrigued “tarzie” (but that “intrigued” word does not really satisfy …I just can’t find a good replacement), to know that I was so drawn to you without knowing that you have either lived in, or, been born ..and lived in (as i have been), William Pitt’s Burgh … in William Penn’s Sylvania/’Woods’.)

      • Tarzie says:

        i don’t make any secret of it but I am curious how you just found out.

      • diane says:

        I realized it via a twitter back and forth you had with someone a day a two or ago about llving in the berg.

      • diane says:

        Speaking of that berg, … and suicide, … the three most vivid suicide recollects I have … are three people …one female, … two males, …. all living from within less than a mile from each other, East Liberty, …… blowing their brains out in ‘their twenties’ ……. , and then those unwitting China White [Lab Condoned and Manufactured and Distributed, Deadly and Synthetic Heroin] ‘suicides’ …. so, …so …. predominant within that less than a miles difference locale. ……

        unspeakably shattering. …….

      • diane says:

        Greggie, Diana, … then Sal, ….not a one of them generally unkind – blew their brains out – I hung out with them, so I do have some reason to make that statement.

        The US ‘petri dish’ venture capitalist/experiment was venal from that jump across ‘the pond’ between London Inc. and, ultimately, Manhattan.

      • diane says:

        and, as regards those unwitting and synthetic suicides, …. it certainly came as no surprise, to way later discover that China White [Lab Condoned and Manufactured and Distributed, Deadly and Synthetic Heroin]™ was so highly distrubuted in the two US states with – back to back – the highest percentage of Corporate ‘domiciles’ …. PA, …then CA .

      • diane says:

        and, .. that FIRST Mother Fucking Venal Scum Who Proclaims that Teens Taking One’s Life …. is a FAD ….frankly, I wouldn’t feel too bad if they were shot in the kneecap (trying to be polite here), …. none of those deaths were instigated by the other. Those untimely deaths were a consequence of the venal and brutal terrain of the US.

  11. diane says:

    Re Walter Glass shutting down his twitter acccount, Walter has left his wordpress site up (at least as I post this):

    08/14/14 Tamango

    I saw an image earlier that same day of an infant, ostensibly killed by an Israeli shell (the professed provenance of the image could be false, though I know such things have happened dozens upon dozens of times over the past month), that is too horrifying to even describe. I raced home after work to be close to Winnie, to hear her cry and feel her warmth for a few extra seconds. I cried then and I cried again at the end of Tamango, looking down at her and struggling to make her joyous presence congruous with the horror I had just witnessed.

    The world is a fucked up place run by some fucked up people, and I haven’t been particularly effective lately in fighting the horror. I’ve gone to rallies, participated in some organizing, written some bullshit on the Internet, but now I’m (temporarily) even more useless. Shell-shocked by the terrifying complications Winnie faced in her first two weeks of life, disoriented by the sleeplessness of newborn parenthood, and frankly paralyzed with the horror of the world I’ve brought Winnie into. Of course the world’s horrors are not largely reserved for children like Winnie, but how do I make her realize how fortunate she is without traumatizing her? I barely even comprehend it myself.

    I experienced a similar moment of overwhelming helplessness during the Chelsea Manning trial last year, and then as now all I could think to do was to pay respects to the people who’d given more than I ever have, or ever will. So I’ll end by saying all respect to the people, in Gaza and Ferguson and elsewhere, who dare to resist the forces that would harm their children and families. And all respect to the people who have died refusing to submit to the master’s plans.

  12. poppsikle says:

    Beautifully written, intelligent, insightful post on an extremely important issue, the best to you Tarzie, keep up the good work. You are authentic adversarial journalism, with the super-important element of truth-telling in a sea of lies
    , of speaking truth to power.

  13. poppsikle says:

    Another point about Greenwald, he supports Free Speech, oh really??? He said nothing about the over one year hack that was placed on my Twitter accounts, which shadow-banned my comment replies on his posts.

    One year.

    He is a typical “free speech” advocate, there is one form of free speech they cannot stand, nor do they support or advocate for, Criticism (of them, of people they support).

  14. diane says:

    Re your twitters about Apple and Israel (and general boycotts of Israel), thought this might be of interest:

    08/08/14 Israel’s Most Important Source of Capital: California

    A lot of California’s venture capital has been exported to Israel to fund military and cybersecurity startups. Israeli society, constantly mobilized for a counter-insurgency war and occupation, creates an environment in which the nation’s hi-tech firms see their main role as contributing to the security of the Jewish state.

    But the U.S. tech industry is also steeped in surveillance and weapons companies, and even the big consumer and enterprise brands like Google, Microsoft, and Cisco produce militarized software and hardware for use here and abroad. The contributions of Hewlett Packard in creating Israel’s biometric tracking system to control the movements of Palestinians is well known. Hewlett Packard also maintains the Israel Defense Ministry’s server farms, a job IBM previously held. What makes the California-Israel economic connection powerful, however, isn’t so much the nature of the technologies being traded, and the capabilities they provide the Israeli state and military, but more so the sheer economic value of these transactions.

    Foreign direct investment into Israel has risen since 2010, and the United States is the key source of capital for Israeli companies. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Israel received $1.846 billion from U.S. investors in 2012, a total that has likely risen over the past two years. That’s about two thirds of the total military aid the U.S. government provided Israel the same year.


    Silicon Valley’s links to Israel have also been promoted through state legislation and the California Governor’s office. In March of 2014 Governor Jerry Brown signed a memorandum of understanding with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promising to promote economic links between California and Israel. The setting for the signing ceremony, Mountain View’s Computer History Museum, underscored the centrality of the tech industry in the agreement.

    (It’s a meaty piece which the excerpt above is not a stand in for. On a subjective level, I am not thinking that port boycotts serve no purpose and I have no reason (currently) to believe the author does either. The author appears to live amidst the gut of the activity (unlike so many who write predominantly laudingly about Silicon Valley and perimeters, when sieved through a fine care and meditation taken filter from miles afar. I suspect he is attempting to portray the enormity of the hand in glove connection between the Sly Con Valley Technocracy and the ‘$TATE’ of ‘Israel.’)

  15. Hieroglyph says:

    Now is the time where we see something interesting. ‘We’ are about to get involved in Iraq, with the usual disastrous consequences. Prior to Libya, I basically just assumed – my mistake – that GG, Democracy Now, Amy Goodman, Monbiot, Chomsy, etc etc would speak some truth to power, and speak strongly against this foolishness. However, Libya was interesting. Democracy Now actually broadcast what seemed to be Pentagon propaganda, and their editorial line was a bit unclear.

    Chomsky (on DN): “My own feeling was that you could have made a case for a no-fly zone and protection of civilians, but I think it’s much harder to make a case for direct participation in a civil war and undercutting of possible options that were supported by almost the entire world.”

    Media Lens on Monbiot: “George Monbiot’s March 15 Guardian article contained all three search terms – his sole mention of Libya in the past 12 months – but he was writing about Saudi Arabia: ‘We won’t trouble Saudi’s tyrants with calls to reform while we crave their oil.’ The article had nothing to say about the looming assault on Libya, just four days away. Monbiot has had nothing to say since.”

    GG (from Salon) : “As I’ve emphasized from the very first time I wrote about a possible war in Libya, there are real and important differences between the attack on Iraq and NATO’s war in Libya, ones that make the former unjustifiable in ways the latter is not (beginning with at least some form of U.N. approval).”

    This is kinda on topic, as I regard the whole subject of heat vampirism (TM Tarzie) as the larger over-arching topic which sometimes links other, smaller posts, like this one. I don’t need to linger too long on these abject quotes. However, I will mention that Chomsky appears to to think that NATO even remotely considered limiting themselves to a mere no-fly zone, which is curious. I did look for some penetrating insights from Monbiot on Libya, and found almost nothing, he appears shy on the subject. And GG? Choosing to emphasise the difference between a ‘bad’ intervention and a potentially ‘good’ intervention is weirdly akin to his discerning the difference between a ‘good’ whistleblower and a ‘bad’ whistleblower. I see a pattern forming here …

    So, now we are about to fuck things up hugely in … loads of places, I’m going to get my nerd on, and start scrutinizing what these people say, a bit more closely. I will have detailed files.

    On the subject of the Twitter boondoggle, this was an enlightening post. Don’t really care what GG is whining about, but as a non-US person, I’m always intruiged by the fact that the communist party seems all-but illegal, but few seem to think this is odd. Does a communist in the US have free speech? No, I don’t think so.

  16. Goldfish Training Institute says:

    Zim losing shippers as a result of action at Port of Oakland.

  17. Goldfish Training Institute says:

    I’m also a vegan, and tofu does work as the filling, and I’ve also done a filling that was tofu plus some garlic and other spices combined with 1-2 tablespoons of nutritional yeast, which adds a cheesy flavor. I would go with regular tofu as opposed to silken as it will have more of a “ricotta” texture to it. Sometimes I add a box of frozen thawed spinach to pasta bakes to boost the nutrition slightly if I don’t use other veggies.

    Mexican casserole is another super easy one – enchilada sauce, fat-free refried beans, corn tortillas, corn, any other veggies you like.) You can serve these to meat eating friends and they always disappear (the food, not the friends). Yay Twitter recipe talk! :p

    • Tarzie says:

      you’re making me hungry.

      yeah, we should talk about food more. I’ll have to remember that.

    • diane says:

      Dear Goldfish Training Institute,

      have you tried the Peruano/Peruvian beans (reportedly aka: Mayocoba and Canary beans)?

      Mmmmmm. There was finally an, at least 50% off, sale a week ago at Chavez Supermarkets @1.19 a pound ..(they’re usally way too dried beans go) so I bought quite a few pounds ….. nice!..

      • diane says:

        (ahhh, shit, haste lays waste ….. where it should not ….. they’re usualy way too pricey = Peruano beans, not Chavez Supermarkets.)

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