By Lena Williams
The Constitutional right to free speech is guaranteed to all. It is one of America’s most cherished values, but it has limits.
Consider the age-old examples that free speech prohibits a person from yelling “fire” in a crowded theater or that one person’s free speech ends where another person’s nose begins.
In other words, one’s freedom of speech ends at the point at which the exercise of that right harms another. And yet the Supreme Court, Congress and state and local governments have often struggled to determine exactly what does and does not constitute protected speech.
The violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug 12 has prompted some social media companies to prohibit certain online content deemed offensive, inflammatory or insensitive.
While social media companies have generally resisted pressure to police the behavior of those using their sites, in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, a growing number of them have begun to re-examine their posture toward hate groups and their policies about what is said, posted or published on their websites.
Google, Twitter and GoDaddy.com barred “The Daily Stormer,” an American neo-Nazi and white supremacist news and commentary website, from their sites as of Aug. 17, after the publication posted a disparaging article about Heather Heyer, a counter-protester who was in Charlottesville to oppose a demonstration by white supremacists. Heyer was killed when a man, claiming to be a neo-Nazi, rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters. At least 19 others were wounded.
Facebook, Reddit and Discord immediately followed suit, disassociating their networks from neo-Nazis and white supremacists who had been using the sites to disseminate hateful speech.
On Aug. 18, “The Daily Caller,” the conservative online publication founded by Fox News host Tucker Carlson, removed a video it produced in January celebrating motorists who plowed into “liberal protesters.” The Daily Caller said the video was a videographer’s “clumsy attempt at creating some levity.” The Fox News website, Fox Nation, which reposted the video, also took it down.
It took the death of a 32-year-old woman, doing nothing more than exercising her First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly, to shut down The Daily Stormer, which has openly and blatantly been spewing hatred and bigotry from the comfort of its online domain since 2013.
Civil rights groups and others who felt websites like The Daily Stormer had crossed the lines of human decency appealed to GoDaddy, the host site, either to censor the content of the publication or ban it completely. GoDaddy had previously said that the content, however, “tasteless” and “ignorant,” was protected by the First Amendment.
Last July GoDaddy told the Daily Beast that a Daily Stormer article threatening to “track down” family members of CNN staffers did not violate the domain’s terms of service.
“We do not see a reason to take any action under our terms of service as it does not promote or encourage violence against people,” said Ben Butler, GoDaddy’s director of network abuse. “While we detest the sentiment of this site and the article in question, we support First Amendment rights and, similar to the principles of free speech, that sometimes means allowing tasteless, ignorant content.”
In the not so distant past, the public could only reach a mass audience by writing op-ed pieces or letters-to-the-editor in mainstream publications or by calling talk radio shows. But the Internet has given the public megaphones to disseminate their opinions and news to the masses.
Terrorists groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda have used the Internet to recruit members and encourage violence against their perceived enemies. Hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan are using the Internet to distribute propaganda, organize protests, promote “hate” rock concerts, fire up their membership, and actively recruit in communities, including high schools.
For months, groups including the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League have been pressuring various web providers to cut off service to openly racist and anti-Semitic sites.
The “Unite the Right” Facebook page, which was used to organize the rally in Charlottesville, was removed the day before the protests, forcing planners to other platforms to organize. Twitter suspended a number of users, including a popular fascists’ message board. Discord, a chat app for gamers, blocked a white supremacist who was calling on like-minded bigots to disrupt the funeral services for Heyer.
PayPal cut off white nationalist Richard Spencer’s organization; Airbnb removed the accounts of a number of Charlottesville attendees before the event and released a statement saying “violence, racism and hatred demonstrated by neo-Nazis, the alt-right and white supremacists should have no place in this world.” Spotify, a music podcast and video streaming service, expunged white supremacist music from its library.
Those who have been waging an ongoing battle with Internet providers to be more aggressive in shutting down hateful speech believe the recent crackdown is in response to public pressure and concerns for companies’ bottom lines, not acts of social and civil responsibility. But others, including First Amendment advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union, are concerned that the rise in censorship could lead to a backlash against other individuals and groups, like Black Lives Matter, a civil rights activist group that is opposed by many white Americans.
The ACLU, which has defended the free speech rights of far-right groups like the neo-Nazis and KKK, had to defend itself from public criticism, some from its own members, after the organization’s executive director expressed support for KKK’s right to protest.
“We fundamentally believe that our democracy will be better and stronger for engaging and hearing divergent views,” Anthony Romero, the ACLU executive director, posted in a blog on Aug. 15. “Racism and bigotry will not be eradicated if we merely force them underground. Equality and justice will only be achieved if society looks such bigotry squarely in the eyes and renounces it.”
He has a point. After all, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense,” written anonymously, might well have been banned today for encouraging people to fight an egalitarian government, in that case Great Britain.
But revolution is one thing, hatred another.