The New York Times, a Journalistic Enterprise, Is Ambivalent About the Free Expression Rights of Others

September 25th, 2012 9:06 AM

New York Times technology correspondent Somini Sengupta wrote a depressing article for the Sunday Review suggesting free speech could be limited by corporations (at the behest of government) in the interest of not offending the sensibilities of violent radical Muslims -- "Free Speech in the Age of YouTube."

Sengupta also seemed to sign on to the false notion that the anti-American violence in Egypt and Libya was tied to the shoddy old anti-Muhammad clip posted on YouTube, when in fact the violence on the anniversary of 9-11 had been long planned and the clip a pretext at best. (Meanwhile, Times editorial board member Lincoln Caplan was also disturbingly ambivalent on "absolutist" free speech on the domestic front.)

Here's Sengupta talking casually about when corporations should "take down" free expression, putting the onus on YouTube to squelch free expression via government request (she does know she's in the business of free expression, right?).

Companies are usually accountable to no one but their shareholders.

Internet companies are a different breed. Because they traffic in speech -- rather than, say, corn syrup or warplanes -- they make decisions every day about what kind of expression is allowed where. And occasionally they come under pressure to explain how they decide, on whose laws and values they rely, and how they distinguish between toxic speech that must be taken down and that which can remain.

The storm over an incendiary anti-Islamic video posted on YouTube has stirred fresh debate on these issues. Google, which owns YouTube, restricted access to the video in Egypt and Libya, after the killing of a United States ambassador and three other Americans. Then, it pulled the plug on the video in five other countries, where the content violated local laws.

Some countries blocked YouTube altogether, though that didn’t stop the bloodshed: in Pakistan, where elections are to be scheduled soon, riots on Friday left a death toll of 19.

The company pointed to its internal edicts to explain why it rebuffed calls to take down the video altogether. It did not meet its definition of hate speech, YouTube said, and so it allowed the video to stay up on the Web. It didn’t say very much more.


Hate speech is a pliable notion, and there will be arguments about whether it covers speech that is likely to lead to violence (think Rwanda) or demeans a group (think Holocaust denial), just as there will be calls for absolute free expression.

Behind closed doors, Internet companies routinely make tough decisions on content


YouTube prohibits hate speech, which it defines as that which “attacks or demeans a group” based on its race, religion and so on; Facebook’s hate speech ban likewise covers “content that attacks people” on the basis of identity. Google and Facebook prohibit hate speech; Twitter does not explicitly ban it. And anyway, legal scholars say, it is exceedingly difficult to devise a universal definition of hate speech.

Shibley Telhami, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, said he hoped the violence over the video would encourage a nuanced conversation about how to safeguard free expression with other values, like public safety. “It’s really about at what point does speech becomes action; that’s a boundary that becomes difficult to draw, and it’s a slippery slope,” Mr. Telhami said.

Sengupta concluded:

One of the challenges of the digital age, as the YouTube case shows, is that speech articulated in one part of the world can spark mayhem in another. Can the companies that run those speech platforms predict what words and images might set off carnage elsewhere? Whoever builds that algorithm may end up saving lives.

Times editorial board member Lincoln Caplan editorial Sunday Review was also disturbingly ambivalent on free speech on the domestic front: "Ensnared by Citizens United."

The G.O.P. of Sanders County, Montana is expected to endorse a candidate soon in the state’s Supreme Court election, ending a 77-year-old prohibition.

Back in 1935, Montana made party endorsements in judicial elections a crime, an effective good-government measure that kept the third branch largely free of politics and money. Earlier this week, however, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that Montana must stop enforcing this time-tested ban.

The majority opinion relied on the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which held that the government may not block independent spending by corporations and unions in elections. The Constitution gives political speech the highest form of protection, the court said, rejecting the argument that speech “of corporations or associations should be treated differently” because they “are not ‘natural persons.’” Parroting the highest court, the Ninth Circuit found that “Montana’s ban on party endorsements of judicial candidates offends the First Amendment.”

Evidently the absolutist view of free speech protection embraced in Citizens United has consequences beyond the money flooding into this year’s presidential election.

It's high irony for a journalist to take a stand against "absolutist" free speech. Will the New York Times next call for regulation of newspaper reports and editorials, in the name of public peace and clean and fair elections?