GAG THE INTERNET
(NY POST) 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 theEnvironmental 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.
He alludes on page 3 (and on page 13, and 14, and 45, and 54 – the book is only 87 pages) to the supposedly insidious lie that “Barack Obama pals around with terrorists.” Since Sunstein intends to impose his Big Chill on such talk, I’d better get this in while I can. The “rumor,” i.e., “fact,” about the palsy-walsiness of Obama and unrepentant terrorist Bill Ayers (Ayers referred to Obama as a “family friend” in a memoir) did not “undermine democracy,” i.e., prevent Obama’s election. The facts got out, voters weighed them and ruled that they weren’t disqualifying.
Sunstein calls for a “notice and take down” law that would require bloggers and service providers to “take down falsehoods upon notice,” even those made by commenters – but without apparent penalty.
Consider how well this nudge would work. You blog about Obama-Ayers. You get a letter claiming that your facts are wrong so you should remove your post. You refuse. If, after a court proceeding proves simply that you are wrong (but not that you committed libel, which when a public figure is the target is almost impossible), you lose, the penalty is . . . you must take down your post.
How long would it take for a court to sort out the truth? Sasha and Malia will be running for president by then. Nobody will care anymore. But it will give politicians the ability to tie up their online critics in court.
Sunstein, trying to fair, argues that libel awards should be capped at $15,000, or at least limited for anyone demonstrating financial hardship. But $15K is the limit you’d pay to your opponent. The legal bill is the scary part, and the reason bloggers already have plenty of reason to be careful about what they say, even if they don’t much fear a libel conviction.
Sunstein dreams of an impossibly virtuous America: “We could also imagine a future in which those who spread false rumors are categorized as such, discounted and marginalized . . . people would approach rumors skeptically even they provide comfort and fit their own biases.” But if his chilling wind doesn’t work, Sunstein may try to make good on the implicit threat that runs through his book: that he would redefine libel as the spread of false information and hold everyone up the ladder responsible.
If this happened, the blogosphere would turn into Pluto overnight. Comments sections would slam shut. Every writer would work on a leash shorter than a shoelace.
Sunstein is an enemy to every news organization and blogger. We should return the favor and declare war on him.