I guess it was inevitable, as political tribalism rises, that the impulse would also grow to simply suppress stuff that one camp or another sees as wrong or dangerous or uncomfortable.

We’re only two weeks into 2022 and politicians here and elsewhere are off on quite the censorship jag.

Weighing in locally is, among others, Gov. Jay Inslee. He’s proposed jailing, for up to one year, any local or state elected official or candidate who makes false statements about the Washington state election system or past local election results. The bill, released earlier this month, says that to qualify for prosecution, the lies must further be “directed toward inciting or producing imminent lawless action.”

Call it the “Honoring the Legacy of Donald Trump Act.”

“I believe it will be constitutional, because we understand that this speech is the type of speech that can promote violence,” Inslee said, directly referring to the U.S. Capitol riot.

Well I’m 100 percent in agreement with the governor that the stolen election crusade from Republicans for the past year has been both shameless and damaging. Shameless because there’s zero evidence for it; damaging because, though false, it’s generating some doubt and disbelief about the engines of democracy anyway.

But outlawing it? That’s a version of the “lock them up!” type of response that liberals rightly criticized Trump for stoking about his rivals.

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“You don’t deal with rising authoritarianism by threatening to put opposing politicians in jail,” says Jeff Kosseff, a former Oregonian reporter turned law professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, who has been critiquing Inslee’s proposal online.

“Other countries throw politicians in jail for their speech. We don’t.”

As a practical matter, charging anyone under the statute would be extremely difficult, Kosseff said. Other attorneys have also noted that Washington state has general laws against inciting riots and the like already, so this special carve out for election-related speech seems redundant.

On a symbolic level though, the intent is pretty clear: “It’s to use the threat of prosecution under this law to try to chill the speech,” Kosseff said.

Chilling speech, or outright trying to ban ideas altogether, is all the rage in U.S. politics. As NBC News noted on New Year’s Eve: “America ends 2021 with a censorship surge.”

The right is in a lather to ban books or even entire topics from being taught in school. In Iowa, the president of the state Senate there suggested charging teachers criminally for using books in class such as Seattle author Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”

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Back at our state Capitol in Olympia: Republican lawmakers here have, right on cue, introduced bills to rid “critical race theory” from the schools, but which go much further than that. One, from Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, House Bill 1886, would ban any teaching in schools, including any classroom discussion, about the notion that institutions in this country can be “structurally racist.”

This is just an ostrich approach to history. If you can’t talk about structural racism, then you likely couldn’t study how our own state Supreme Court tossed out the death penalty a few years ago, on account of how racially skewed it was. Black defendants were four times more likely than white ones to be sentenced to death. That’s a fact, not even a theory, yet it would be off-limits.

The free speech group PEN America says history sanitization proposals like this are sweeping the country, and they amount to “educational gag rules.”

Of course there’s legitimate debate about whether various books or lessons are appropriate or should be taught. But blanket bans on ideas are anti-educational and counter to the whole premise of a free society. Like the lawyer said about jailing politicians, other countries do stuff like this. We — supposedly — don’t.

Klippert, who is running for Congress in Central Washington’s 4th District, also happens to be one of the state’s leading dabblers in the stolen election conspiracy. So here he is, working hard to muzzle ideas he doesn’t like, even as Inslee, across the Capitol rotunda, is trying to muzzle him.

None of this muzzling will work; it never does. It will force the conversations underground. In the case of the stolen election nonsense, I could see it even magnifying its conspiratorial power. People will say: “The government banned talking about it, so there must be something there.”

It’s a cliché, but the answer to all this is: More speech. More talk about our checkered history, not less. More debunking of lies. Society is struggling with a fire hose of misinformation, but we’re not going to be able to regulate or censor our way out of that.

I guess I thought, or hoped, that we were made of sturdier stuff than this. Where, for all our flaws, we might still at least aspire to be a marketplace of ideas. Instead, both our political parties right now seem like they’re running scared.

Local Politics
A ferry passes the Seattle skyline during sunset on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021.  218504

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