This is a very American thing, the idea that rights aren’t conferred, but a part of us, like our livers, and you can’t take them away without destroying who we are. That’s why in other contexts you’ll hear some of us say things like, “I’ll give you this gun when you pry it from my cold dead hands!”
Some people roll their eyes and think that sounds crazy, but we know that guy actually means it, and to a lot of us it makes sense. We’re touchy about rights, especially about the first ones: speech, assembly, religion, the free press.
But we’re not here tonight to debate the virtues of American speech law versus the European tradition. Instead, Michael and I are here to tell a horror story that concerns people from all countries. Last year, he and I were offered a unique opportunity to look at the internal documentation of Twitter.
I entered that story lugging old-fashioned, legalistic, American views about rights, hoping to answer maybe one or two questions. Had the FBI, for instance, ever told the company what to do in a key speech episode? If so, that would be a First Amendment violation. Big stuff!
But after looking at thousands of emails and Slack chats, I first started to get a headache, then became confused. I realized the old-school Enlightenment-era protections I grew up revering were designed to counter authoritarianism as people understood the concept hundreds of years ago, back in the days of tri-cornered hats and streets lined with horse manure.