Rush to Regulate Foreign Speech Risks China-Like Censorship

RNLA member Eric Wang wrote in USA Today how the rush to regulate foreign speech on American political and policy issues will inevitably stifle American speech, pointing first to the example of China:

Recent revelations that Russian interests used social media to interfere with the 2016 American election campaign have sent lawmakers scurrying to respond. China’s “Great Firewall” offers one possible model for securing our democracy. . . . China censors any agitators, foreign or domestic, on social media. Politically sensitive topics like Tibetan self-determination, the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, or resistance against the Communist Party are off-limits. Of course, the Great Firewall also completely blocks access to Facebook, Twitter, and thousands of other websites. . . . Emulating China’s disregard for free speech may seem like mere satire for Americans. . . . But recent calls to regulate online political speech by foreign interests directed at Americans seem to articulate no bounds. There is a real risk that a rush to regulate will threaten basic civil liberties. . . .

As Mr. Wang points out, the frightening example of China shows that control of the internet almost inevitably leads to censorship.  Even if American citizens' right to speak is not curtailed, their right to listen would be: 

Any regulation of speech about political issues by foreigners could end up entangling U.S. citizens. . . . Even if we could use technology, such as blocking overseas Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, to prevent only foreign nationals from influencing us, this would still limit Americans’ First Amendment rights. As the Supreme Court has held, the right to speak also involves the right to listen.

Mr. Wang includes some interesting examples of the various ways foreign actors seek to influence opinion in the U.S. and concludes by pointing out that foreign attempts at influence are inevitable and certainly not new: 

Except in the most closed societies, speech has always seeped across national borders. In an irony befitting today’s topsy-turvy politics, Democrats now decry Russia’s attempts to aid Trump last year. But last year, Republicans condemned foreign leaders who urged Americans to reject Trump. Look at history as well. The book “Democracy in America” is one of the most influential tracts on our political system, and remains required reading in American university political science courses today. It was written, of course, by Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman. By regulating Americans’ access to foreign speech about our politics, we risk becoming a “hermit kingdom.” 

All this is not to diminish the threat of foreign interference in our democracy. But First Amendment rights, once curtailed, are not easily restored. Therefore, we must carefully consider how we handle this issue. Rushing to restrict Americans’ political freedoms in the name of curbing foreigners’ political speech would play right into Russia’s hands.

As we have been discussing frequently in the past few weeks, while we may resent foreign attempts to influence our political process, regulating and restricting more than is already done in the law risks stifling speech by American citizens on important political and policy issues and isolating the U.S. internationally in a way that is unthinkable in a modern free society.