Riots in London, violent flash mobs in Philadelphia and Wisconsin, protests clogging BART platforms in San Francisco. Against a backdrop of high unemployment and economic upheaval, we have entered the Summer of Jangled Nerves.
Anxiety and clear thinking don't usually mix, as evidenced by the commentators and government officials who have decided that the fault lies not, dear Twitter, in ourselves but in our social media. From the prime minister of England to the bosses of the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, there's talk, or more, of silencing tweets, stifling Facebook and corralling text messages, at least in times of suspected trouble.
The police near London decided it was OK to arrest a man trying to organize a mass water fight via text messages. Such overreaches will be rejected as all wet. But what about other restrictions, which might appear to protect the silent and law-abiding majority from a noisy and dangerous minority?
That's the funny thing about free speech. It's easy to defend when the world chugs along nicely, speaking with civility and relative contentment. It's when the scruffy, dispossessed or menacing want their say that it's harder to remember that freedom must apply (at least in America) to everyone, not just those who employ it wisely.
The decision of a few in government to trump bad behavior with worse rules is as disturbing. So is the media's tendency, in these recent stories about uncontrolled mobs, to diagnose the patient prior to a full examination. It's far easier to find declarations about what's motivating restive young people — excessive government cutbacks in government, poor parenting, racial discrimination, the dearth of religion — than to locate actual reporting about what's gone wrong.
Peggy Noonan, writing in the Wall Street Journal, declared "a lack of moral grounding." Bill O'Reilly on Fox wondered if Britons would be better off with more guns in the hands of the law-abiding. At the other end of the spectrum, a commentator in London's Independent saw the rebellion of the young and dispossessed, "condemned to a darkness where their humanity is not even valued enough to be helped."
Ideology is a convenient refuge when you'd prefer not to spend long hours on the streets, trying to figure out why the young are lashing out. The latter is a difficult investment for news executives, especially when there's a good possibility the final answers will be entirely murky. Could it be that causation falls under "all of the above" — pointing to young people who are both coddled by parents and government, but also bereft of hope of advancement in a devolving economy?
It would be helpful in the meantime if the rule-makers don't delude themselves into thinking they can seize control of events by seizing up communication. When activists in the Bay Area planned to disrupt BART last Thursday to protest the fatal shooting of a homeless man, the transit agency moved to squelch the demonstrators by shutting down cellphone service at four stations.
BART spokesman Linton Johnson declared: "Outside the fare gates, that's the public forum area. Inside the fare gates is a non-public forum and by law, by the Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court, there is no right to free speech there."
It's not clear how Johnson obtained such exclusive insight into Washington's nine robed titans. But it's safe to say his assertion isn't shared by authorities on free speech.
"Nations such as Libya, Israel, Iran and China are known to limit or ban social media during times of crisis," wrote professor David N. Lowry. "It is more than disappointing that our good friend and ally, Great Britain, would publicly entertain prior restraints of social media [rather] than enforcing other laws that are presently in place to quell lawlessness."
Writing before the contretemps in the Bay Area, Lowry decried even the suggestion by British Prime Minister David Cameron that social media restrictions might be in order. The professor called that "the equivalent of shutting down the nation's entire phone system during the days when phones were the primary source of communication, because of a fear that criminals might plan mischief over the phones."
Lowry, no wild-eyed civil libertarian, teaches communication and is dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Oklahoma Christian University.
American courts have allowed prior restraint of speech rarely — when a clear and present danger, or an imminent threat to the public, could be demonstrated. In 1969's decision, Brandenburg vs. Ohio, the Supreme Court ruled that even speech that might promote criminal activity can be restrained only when the words are "directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and … likely to incite or produce such action."
That standard might have been met with some of the provocative agitating on social networks that preceded recent attacks — robbing and roughing up strangers — in Philadelphia, Cleveland and at the Wisconsin State Fair. But even in such cases, American law supports only narrowly tailored speech prohibitions, not broad bans on, say, one mode of communication.
BART's shutdown of phone service was "like saying someone said something offensive on television and therefore you are going to shut down the whole cable system," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The FCC launched an investigation.
Philadelphia's Mayor Michael Nutter took a far more defensible approach. He blasted out-of-control young people after the string of recent attacks in the city and said neglectful parents could be hit with criminal charges. He imposed a 9 p.m. curfew on those younger than 18. Since the new rules have been put in place, the wilding had receded.
In the Bay Area transit district, there might not be such ready alternatives. But some police have noted that social networks like Twitter actually can be an ally. Follow the right tweeters, you know where the trouble will be. Deploy officers accordingly.
Paying for all those extra cops won't come as cheap as shutting down phone service. And closing stations, as BART did this week, will infuriate already frazzled commuters. But those solutions have the benefit of not violating the 1st Amendment. No one said free speech would be an easy ride.