Railing against "fake news" and sparring with media outlets is something we've come to expect from President Donald Trump. But now French President Emmanuel Macron has called for legislation in France that would empower judges to take down internet content they deemed false and block access to websites — just during election campaigns, mind you. In Germany, a law aimed at curbing hate speech on social media took effect Jan. 1, the Czech Republic has established an anti-fake news task force, and the European Union last week appointed 39 experts to a "High Level Group" to examine fake news and online disinformation and issue recommendations.
In Macron's case, he is responding directly to attacks leveled at him late in his election campaign, including charges later proved false that he had a secret Caribbean bank account. He won the election anyway, and now says he wants to prevent similar outrages from occurring in the future.
That impulse is understandable but wrong-headed.
As aggravating as it can be to see false claims passed off as legitimate news coverage, cracking down on "fake news" is fraught with danger. For starters, someone must decide what is fake and what is not. No one should be comfortable with giving that power to the government — any government — but that is exactly what Macron's proposed law would do.
France has a constitution, and it protects free speech and a free press — to a point. Article 10 of the French constitution's Declaration of Human and Civic Rights states, “No one may be disturbed on account of his opinions, even religious ones, as long as the manifestation of such opinions does not interfere with the established Law and Order.” Article 11 says, “The free communication of ideas and of opinions is one of the most precious rights of man. Any citizen may therefore speak, write and publish freely, except what is tantamount to the abuse of this liberty in the cases determined by Law.”
"As long as." "Except."
The United States Constitution contains no such ambiguity. "Congress shall make no law," the First Amendment says, " ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press ..."
So what to do about irresponsible — or downright sinister — websites or "news" outlets that publish falsehoods, especially in the heat of an election campaign? That's what legitimate news operations are for, and why they have constitutional protections.
As quickly as false or misleading information is released, real news outfits go to work checking to see whether it's on the level, and reporting what they find. It's not perfect, and it's often not pretty, but it works — if the reading and viewing public pay attention and make up their own minds.
And that's the key. At its best, and as our Founding Fathers designed it, government exists to serve the public, not the other way around, and not to decree what is true and what is false.
As soon as free people allow the government to define truth, they have lost whatever freedom they thought they had.
— Reach Editorial Page Editor Gary Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org.