Free Speech Q&A: Elizabeth Warren
1. What do you see as the top three threats to free expression, including press freedom, in the United States today?
First, we need to get Trump out of the White House. A free and independent press is powerfully important to the survival of democracy here and around the world, but the Trump administration has launched an all-out assault on the free press. Trump himself has called our free press the “enemy of the people” and even threatened to shut down press outlets whose reporting he doesn’t agree with. [Read about PEN America’s lawsuit against the president for his unconstitutional retaliation of the press]. That is the strategy of dictators and autocrats. No matter your politics, we need to fight back against these attacks, because if we lose a free press, we lose basic democracy as we know it.
We also need to crack down on the spread of disinformation that severely undermines free expression and legitimate journalism. Once again, we’re seeing Facebook throw up its hands in the face of disinformation campaigns on its platforms, because when profit comes up against protecting democracy, Facebook chooses profit. We need to stop this generation of big tech companies from profiting off of lies to the American people. That’s why my administration will make big, structural changes to the tech sector — including breaking up giant tech companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google – and requiring large tech platforms to be designated as “Platform Utilities” and broken apart from any participant on that platform. My administration will also appoint regulators committed to reversing illegal and anti-competitive tech mergers. [Learn about PEN America’s original research examining how disinformation affects our society].
And we need to address increased consolidation of broadcast news services, which pose a significant threat to a free press and free expression. [Read PEN America’s recent report on the local news crisis]. Just look at Sinclair Broadcast Group, which recently acquired 21 regional sports networks. Sinclair is the largest local television station owner in America, and it has made a name for itself by aggressively promoting ultraconservative views. And Sinclair is not alone – Disney acquired 21st Century Fox earlier this year, and CBS and Viacom are currently completing a merger. Greater consolidation reduces choice for consumers and threatens our democracy, leaving a handful of giant corporations with the power to force their political messaging on millions of Americans. At the same time, local news organizations are fast disappearing, as private equity companies suck them dry and advertising sales dwindle with the rise of advertising giants like Facebook and Google. These factors have led to the closure of almost 1,800 local newspapers over the last fifteen years alone and have left many more unable to fully cover their communities.
“A free and independent press is powerfully important to the survival of democracy here and around the world.”
2. Americans from all political stripes have registered deep concern about the impact of fraudulent news and disinformation on our electoral process and our civil life. What steps will you take to ensure you and your supporters will not use or spread fraudulent news in your campaign?
I am opposed to the use of disinformation to sway our elections. I will not promulgate fraudulent news, and I will condemn those who do. But to truly stem the tide of fake news and disinformation campaigns, we need to be more aggressive. We have to attack the root of the problem head on. And the way I see it, dishonesty and disinformation don’t thrive in a healthy democracy. That’s why I’ll make it a priority to strengthen our democracy by introducing the most aggressive set of anti-corruption reforms since Watergate. I will strengthen federal open records laws to close loopholes and exemptions that hide corporate influence and increase transparency in Congress, federal agencies, and nonprofits that aim to influence policy – so that in the face of fraudulent news and disinformation, Americans will have access to the facts.
But we can’t stop there. I’ve also called out Facebook for operating as a disinformation-for-profit machine that has allowed political advertisements with known lies to be served on its platform. Because Facebook is a monopoly, it faces no real pressure to tackle disinformation. That’s why I’ve called to unwind Facebook’s anti-competitive mergers – because tech giants like Facebook shouldn’t be able to wield enough power to undermine our democracy.
3. Local journalism across America is in crisis – some 20 percent of all metro and community newspapers in the US have gone out of business or merged since 2004 and those that remain have made deep cuts to reporting. What steps would you take to shore up local journalism and its key role in democratic accountability at the state and local level?
We can start by transforming the private equity industry — the poster child for financial firms that suck value out of the economy – which is wiping out local and regional newspapers. The playbook goes like this: buy up papers for cheap, slash the staff to cut costs, and bleed the company with fees and dividends. When the papers fail, members of the press lose their jobs and communities lose valuable sources of local news coverage. We need to call this out for what it is: legalized looting — looting that makes a handful of Wall Street managers very rich while costing thousands of people their jobs, putting valuable companies out of business, and hurting communities across the country.
I have a plan to end the pernicious harms of private equity firms. First, these firms will be on the hook for the debts of companies they buy, making them responsible for the downside of their investments so they only make money when the companies they control make money. We’ll also make them responsible for certain pension obligations of the companies they buy – and they will no longer be able to pay themselves huge monitoring fees or pay themselves unlimited dividends. The tax and bankruptcy rules will be changed so that private equity firms don’t get sweetheart tax rates on all the debt they put on the companies they buy, and we’ll empower investors with better information on firms and stop lenders and investment managers from making reckless loans to private equity-owned companies already swimming in debt. [Read PEN America’s recommendations to foster strong local news around the country].
“I am opposed to the use of disinformation to sway our elections. I will not promulgate fraudulent news, and I will condemn those who do. But to truly stem the tide of fake news and disinformation campaigns, we need to be more aggressive. We need to attack the root of the problem head on. And the way I see it, dishonesty and disinformation don’t thrive in a healthy democracy.”
In spite of Wall Street’s best efforts, local newspapers still provide the lion’s share of local news stories and a majority of stories local newspapers produce are original. By keeping communities informed on the issues directly affecting them, local papers provide a crucial service. Studies show that without them, local government costs rise, fewer people run for local office, and voters are less engaged. The federal government can and must do more to help local papers survive, including by strengthening enforcement of antitrust laws to prevent major conglomerates from monopolizing news markets across entire regions, and supporting journalists’ efforts to organize and form a union.
4. Federal courts have interpreted Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 to provide social media platforms with immunity from liability for the content they disseminate. At the same time, there is growing public concern about the spread of Russian disinformation, hateful speech, harassment, provocations to commit violence, and other forms of noxious content on social media platforms. What, if any, reforms to Section 230 would you support to address the tech platforms’ accountability for content?
The current practices of social media platforms, like Facebook, are untenable. Russia interfered in our elections and undermined our democracy, but Facebook’s new policy to curb misinformation explicitly excludes political advertisements, demonstrating that Zuckerberg and Facebook executives continue to fail to take necessary steps to prevent another attack in the 2020. Instead, Facebook is accepting millions of dollars from Trump to run political ads with outright lies. Ads that TV stations won’t even run. I’m open to considering reforms to Section 230 that preserve the freedom of the internet while increasing accountability for tech platforms. But the starting point must be for Congress and the appropriate state authorities to open investigations into Facebook and other big tech companies.
5. In the wake of recent instances where connections have been drawn between hateful speech and acts of violence, some have proposed that we look to other democratic countries with laws that criminalize various forms of “hate speech.” Do you believe the United States should consider broader legal prohibitions on hateful speech, and what, if anything, do you believe should be done to curb the spread of hateful speech?
I condemn hate speech, and I believe we should be able to hold people accountable for their words. I also support the American people’s right to free speech, which is critical to our democracy. But the First Amendment does not protect violence that accompanies speech. When white supremacists and bigots murder, attack, or attempt to harm others, they should be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law. Today, the same technological changes that have allowed people to more easily find each other and unite have also made it easier to incite hatred and violence – a change that our current leadership continues to exploit. Big tech companies cannot continue to hide behind free speech, while profiting off of hate speech and disinformation campaigns. That’s why I’ve called out Facebook for operating as a disinformation-for-profit machine and why I’m committed to unwinding Facebook’s anti-competitive mergers and cracking down on practices that allow the company to undermine our democracy.
“Free speech is not a left versus right issue; it is a right that we must preserve…”
6. The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi drew the world’s attention to the Saudi government’s brutal suppression of its critics. Scores of Saudi activists have been detained and prosecuted for advocating for women’s rights and other freedoms. As president, what new steps would you take to push for the release of prisoners of conscience and the protection of human rights in Saudi Arabia?
The Saudi government’s role in the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi and its repression of its own citizens insult all who respect human rights and call into question its reliability as a partner. I have sponsored legislation condemning Saudi Arabia’s treatment of human rights and women’s rights activists, journalists, and religious minorities. Right now, the Trump administration is letting Saudi Arabia off the hook. [Read about PEN America’s efforts to demand accountability for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi]. That is dangerous – and in a Warren administration, it will end. While the U.S. and Saudi Arabia will continue to share some common objectives, it is time to reorient our policy in the region away from a reflexive embrace of the Saudi regime and toward one that focuses on U.S. interests. We must be crystal clear about our expectations — including those related to human rights — if Saudi Arabia wants a real partnership. If the Saudi regime is unable or unwilling to meet those expectations, they should expect real consequences in terms of a more limited relationship moving forward. But repression of speech and freedom of religion, of assembly, and of the press is not limited to Saudi Arabia. To truly live our values, the United States must do more to advance these freedoms around the world.
7. Are you concerned about the climate of free speech on college campuses and what approaches do you believe can be most effective in ensuring that universities remain open to the widest possible breadth of ideas?
Free speech is not a left versus right issue; it is a right that we must preserve, including on college campuses. All of us who believe in America and its freedoms need to make sure powerful institutions and individuals don’t shut down speech they don’t like, and that includes universities. First, suppression can backfire. Instead of stopping individuals with disgusting views, they may get national attention. Bigots and white supremacists will make themselves out to be First Amendment martyrs. Second, suppression suggests weakness, it makes us sound like we’re afraid. We should not be afraid to defeat evil ideas with good ideas. Free speech does not mean the speaker is entitled to an audience. Free speech does not mean you have to remain silent while someone demeans women or people of color or anybody else. Students have the power to critique and make their voices heard. Free speech means more speech. Colleges can preserve freedom of speech and remain open to a wide breadth of ideas by sponsoring debates and enabling all student groups to invite guests. [Learn about PEN America’s Campus Free Speech Project and our work around the country].
However, the First Amendment does not protect violence that accompanies speech. When white supremacists and bigots murder, attack, or attempt to harm others, they should be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.
8. What role will considerations of human rights and particularly free expression play in the United States’ bilateral relationships with both Russia and China, and what steps would you take to hold Moscow and Beijing accountable for violations of freedom of expression and assembly both domestically and outside its borders?
China’s actions in Xinjiang are a violation of international law and of basic human rights, and its attempts to suppress democratic protests in Hong Kong undermine Beijing’s own commitments to the city’s autonomy. In Russia, protesters are regularly met with violence and arrests. The next president will have an obligation to cooperate with China and Russia to advance some of our highest priority national interests, including addressing the climate crisis and nuclear proliferation, while at the same time handling tough issues where we have little common ground. But our values cannot be used as a bargaining chip. We must send a clear message that the United States and our partners expect both countries to live up to their commitments to their people — and that the international community will respond when they do not.
9. In our 2015 report, Secret Sources: Whistleblowers, National Security and Free Expression, PEN America documented a series of gaps in whistleblower protection. With renewed attention to the essential role of whistleblowers in uncovering official wrongdoing, how will you address these deficiencies in protection so that the American public can have the benefit of disclosures essential to ensuring our national security?
In our democracy, whistleblowers play a pivotal role in holding the powerful accountable in public and private institutions, and we have a responsibility to ensure that there are proper procedures for disclosing sensitive matters and legal protections to keep whistleblowers safe. I am committed to protecting whistleblowers against attacks from the Trump administration and establishing enduring protections that will last beyond him.
Finally, whatever one’s opinions of Julian Assange, these charges under the Espionage Act set a precedent that could be used to target journalists. We should not be using this case as a pretext to wage war on the First Amendment and go after the free press who hold the powerful accountable everyday.
10. When you want to escape from politics, what book(s) do you turn to for inspiration, entertainment, or solace?
The book that I have read the most is Sense and Sensibility. Each time I read it, I discover a new layer in it. The characters are interesting and far more complex than appears on the surface. When I read the book, I am reminded that a serious woman who is a sharp observer has the capacity to open our eyes in ways we had never thought of before.
11. Do you believe that Twitter should ban President Trump for violations of its company policies regarding content?
I don’t want to push Donald Trump off Twitter. I want to push him out of the White House. That’s our job.
Free Speech 2020 is PEN America’s year-long initiative to highlight threats to free speech and showcase how we intend to fight back—by defending press freedom, fighting online harassment, combating disinformation, and upholding protest rights. As part of this candidate series, PEN America contacted all major presidential candidates for interviews. PEN America is highlighting our conversations with writers, artists, activists, journalists, and advocates who work at the intersections of creative expression and free speech throughout 2020. Learn more about our work here »