AN OBAMA OFFICIAL’S FRIGHTENING BOOK ABOUT CURBING FREE SPEECH ONLINE
When it comes to the First Amendment, Team Obama believes in Global Chilling.
Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law professor who has been appointed to a shadowy post that will grant him powers that are merely mind-boggling, explicitly supports using the courts to impose a “chilling effect” on speech that might hurt someone’s feelings. He thinks that the bloggers have been rampaging out of control and that new laws need to be written to corral them.
Advance copies of Sunstein’s new book, “On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done,” have gone out to reviewers ahead of its September publication date, but considering the prominence with which Sunstein is about to be endowed, his worrying views are fair game now. Sunstein is President Obama’s choice to head the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. It’s the bland titles that should scare you the most.
“Although obscure,” reported the Wall Street Journal, “the post wields outsize power. It oversees regulations throughout the government, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Obama aides have said the job will be crucial as the new administration overhauls financial-services regulations, attempts to pass universal health care and tries to forge a new approach to controlling emissions of greenhouse gases.”
Sunstein was appointed, no doubt, off the success of “Nudge,” his previous book, which suggests that government ought to gently force people to be better human beings.
Czar is too mild a world for what Sunstein is about to become. How about “regulator in chief”? How about “lawgiver”? He is Obama’s Obama.
In “On Rumors,” Sunstein reviews how views get cemented in one camp even when people are presented with persuasive evidence to the contrary. He worries that we are headed for a future in which “people’s beliefs are a product of social networks working as echo chambers in which false rumors spread like wildfire.” That future, though, is already here, according to Sunstein. “We hardly need to imagine a world, however, in which people and institutions are being harmed by the rapid spread of damaging falsehoods via the Internet,” he writes. “We live in that world. What might be done to reduce the harm?”
Sunstein questions the current libel standard – which requires proving “actual malice” against those who write about public figures, including celebrities. Mere “negligence” isn’t libelous, but Sunstein wonders, “Is it so important to provide breathing space for damaging falsehoods about entertainers?” Celeb rags, get ready to hire more lawyers.
Sunstein also believes that – whether you’re a blogger, The New York Times or a Web hosting service – you should be held responsible even for what your commenters say. Currently you’re immune under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. “Reasonable people,” he says, “might object that this is not the right rule,” though he admits that imposing liability for commenters on service providers would be “a considerable burden.”
But who cares about a burden when insults are being bandied about? “A ‘chilling effect’ on those who would spread destructive falsehoods can be an excellent idea,” he says.
“As we have seen,” Sunstein writes, having shown us no such thing, “falsehoods can undermine democracy itself.” What Sunstein means by that sentence is pretty clear: He doesn’t like so-called false rumors about his longtime University of Chicago friend and colleague, Barack Obama.
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