The “Mary Poppins of Disinformation,” as Biden’s Disinformation Governance Board chief, Nina Jankowicz, has dubbed herself, has given us a new indication of how negatively she regards the freedom of speech. In a mid-April NPR interview that is getting renewed scrutiny because of her appointment to head the Ministry of Truth, Jankowicz was asked what she thought about the prospect of Elon Musk, who says he is a “free speech absolutist,” taking over Twitter. Jankowicz’s answer was hardly reassuring to those who see the very existence of a Disinformation Governance Board as an all-out assault on the First Amendment.
Jankowicz suggested that the freedom of speech was bad for minorities:
I shudder to think about if free speech absolutists were taking over more platforms, what that would look like for the marginalized communities all around the world, which are already shouldering so much of this abuse, disproportionate amounts of this abuse, and retraumatizing themselves as they try to protect themselves from it, you know, reporting, blocking, et cetera. We need the platforms to do more, and we frankly need law enforcement and our legislatures to do more as well. And in other countries that are looking at this, you know, the U.K. has an online safety bill that’s being considered right now where they’re trying to make illegal this currently, quote, “awful but lawful content” that exists online where people are being harassed.”
The Disinformation Czarina made this argument in the context of a lengthy discourse about the abuse and harassment that women suffer online. It’s a canny argument because no one is willing to appear to be coming out in favor of the abuse or harassment of anyone. However, it’s also specious because even free speech absolutists don’t favor allowing for speech that involves violence or threats of violence or the advocacy or planning of any criminal activity.
Jankowicz, who besides the Mary Poppins bit, is also billed on her website as “an internationally-recognized expert on disinformation,” has not yet explained how she, as America’s arbiter of what speech is acceptable and what isn’t, can impose measures meant to stop the online abuse of women or stop any kind of “disinformation” she claims to identify without placing unconstitutional restrictions upon the freedom of speech. What will Jankowicz and the Disinformation Governance Board do if they believe something is “disinformation” that its purveyor is firmly convinced is true and has evidence to prove it? The answer is likely that the Board would censor such a person, as its authority would be final in such matters, and that’s part of the problem.
The First Amendment says that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. It does not say that someone’s freedom of speech can be abridged in cases where some government board has decided that what the target is saying constitutes “disinformation” or “abuse.” It doesn’t say that American citizens have some right to silence the speech of other people when that speech is “awful but lawful” and upsetting to them.
It’s still not clear what exactly the Disinformation Governance Board is going to be doing. The name, however, is ominous enough; even more ominous is the fact that the Board is part of the Department of Homeland Security as if to underscore that accused peddlers of “disinformation” will be treated as national security threats, and Jankowicz’s repeated statements demonstrating her distaste for the freedom of speech are hardly reassuring.
Now DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is claiming that he was unaware of Jankowicz’s dotty TikTok video celebrating censorship. That strains credulity. How carefully was Jankowicz vetted? Of course, Mayorkas is a busy man with weighty responsibilities. He can’t be expected to be aware of every last detail. But it’s highly likely that he and Nina Jankowicz will be very aware of you, and perusing a complete dossier on your activities, if you state publicly that “the 2020 election was stolen” or “Islam is not a religion of peace.” We can’t have those free speech absolutists running around loose spreading “disinformation” that might traumatize someone, now, can we?
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was having none of it, saying: “As if they don’t have enough issues to deal with, they now have an idea, and I honestly thought this was a belated April Fool’s joke, but they are actually going to create in the Department of Homeland Security a Bureau of Disinformation. It’s basically a Ministry of Truth….They want to be able to put out false narratives without people being able to speak out and fight back. They want to be able to say things like ‘Russia collusion’ and perpetuate hoaxes and have people like us be silenced. They want people to be able to advocate for COVID lockdowns … for school closures, things that are not supported by the evidence. But then when you speak out they want to stifle dissent. We reject this bureau in the state of Florida.” We must reject it all across the United States.