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Another View -- Gilles Bissonnette: Tech companies shouldn't censor offensive speech

August 09. 2018 11:10PM

SIX WEEKS from New Hampshire’s September primary and three months from the November election, we saw this week significant censorship by technology companies of offensive speech.

After Apple removed five podcasts by talk show host Alex Jones and his site Infowars, other platforms quickly followed suit. On Monday, Facebook delated Jones’s content, and YouTube banned him. Spotify is also barring Jones from posting.

There has been a mixed reaction to this censorship. For example, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., applauded the censorship and even called for more, saying, “These companies must do more than take down one website. The survival of our democracy depends on it.”

We beg to differ, especially as it pertains to political speech in the run-up to elections. Censoring what political speech voters are exposed to — even speech perceived as false, offensive, or hateful — is antithetical to our democratic values.

Jones is hardly a sympathetic figure. His speech is undoubtedly awful. He has built a media empire promoting, for example, 9/11 conspiracy theories and false claims that the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut was staged with crisis actors (a claim for which he’s being sued by parents of the shooting’s victims.)

But let’s remember the obvious: Censoring offensive speech does not eliminate it. In fact, censoring ideas can lend them fuel. Moreover, what is “hateful” or “offensive” speech is inherently subjective. These definitions are inevitably determined by the entity doing the censoring.

It’s worth recalling another recent act of censorship that has been the subject of much debate—the NFL’s decision to ban players from kneeling during the national anthem in protest against police brutality.

Both the NFL’s response to the national anthem protests and these technology companies’ response to Alex Jones constitute — we think inappropriate — censorship of peaceful political speech. Jones and NFL players may fall on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but our outrage over their censorship should be the same.

To be clear, these companies’ decisions to block Jones are not a breach of his First Amendment rights, just as the NFL banning kneeling during the national anthem is not a violation of players’ First Amendment rights. This is because we are dealing with private companies.

However, we should all still be concerned. Indeed, while the decision to take down Jones’s content may have provided a seemingly quick public relations solution to a challenging situation, seeing censorship as a solution is shortsighted.

While private companies can choose what to take down from their sites under the First Amendment, the fact that social media platforms like Facebook have become indispensable platforms for the speech of billions means that they should resist calls to censor offensive or hateful speech.

With respect to Facebook in particular, what’s at stake here is the ability of a platform that serves as a massive forum for political discourse to use its enormous power to censor speech on the basis of its own determinations of what is true, what is hateful, and what is offensive.

Whether out of distaste for hateful speech or inaccurate content, these companies will inevitably get it wrong if they attempt to censor speech. We’ve already seen it go wrong when Facebook silenced women of color for repeating word-for-word the vitriol thrown at them, without similarly censoring those who originally made the racist comments.

And when people used Facebook as a tool to document their experiences of police violence, Facebook chose to shut down their livestreams. The national ACLU’s own Facebook post about censorship of a public statue was also inappropriately censored by Facebook.

Facebook has shown us that it does a bad job of moderating “hateful” or “offensive” posts, even when its intentions are good. Facebook and other technology companies will do no better at serving as the arbiter of truth versus misinformation.

Private companies may not have First Amendment obligations, but they still should value the merits of free speech. When it comes to gatekeepers of the modern-day public square, we should trust the public to be their own arbiters, especially when the speech is political and in advance of an election.

Gilles Bissonnette is legal director of ACLU-NH.

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