The Innocence of Muslims trailer that has sparked deadly protests overseas is crass, intentionally offensive, and grossly inappropriate. That much is clear. As crude as the video may be, however, Google did the right thing in not removing it from YouTube because its content is not, in itself, what the law would call an “incitement to violence.” Its message did not urge others to participate in violent conduct, but was used by a violent and irresponsible faction as an excuse for more violence.
Furthermore, new media giants like Google, Facebook or Apple should not censor content on their platforms because of pressure from the government, or because of groups that might be offended by controversial yet lawful viewpoints.
A free marketplace of ideas will always serve a free republic best. It should alarm us all when new media giants like Google and Facebook begin to lean in a direction and have the kind of influence where they will have an adverse impact in the free marketplace of ideas.
Though these new media giants are not “state actors” and therefore not required to apply the First Amendment to their efforts to moderate their platforms, they should not arrogate to themselves the right to arbitrarily shut down communications of citizens because they or others disagree with their view or values.
If you look at the history of free speech, it is almost always governments that abridge speech. It is rarely, though not without precedent, that private enterprise becomes a major factor in constraining free speech. That, however, could very well happen in America if new media giants place themselves in the role of arbiter.
Already, there have been instances where new media giants have been accused of constraining speech. Take, for instance, Apple’s removal of the Manhattan Declaration and Exodus International apps from its iTunes App Store in 2010: Both were removed after protesters decried the faith-based apps as “anti-gay” and potentially “harmful” or “hateful,” though their creators and supporters have insisted otherwise.
Even after the app creators made efforts to modify their apps, Apple would not let them back in.
However well-intentioned the practices and policies of new media companies may be, they should not limit or prohibit expression because a viewpoint or opinion is deemed to constitute “hate speech” or is considered to be “hateful,” or is thought to be unacceptable under any similar formulation.
The hecklers in this culture and around the world should not be dictating what speech is permitted on social media platforms. Neither should new media giants, though they are free to do so.
New media censorship is a slippery slope, and one that could lead to a tyranny over ideas on web-based platforms.
These U.S.-based companies would do well to embrace and enact policies and practices that are consistent with the principles upon which this nation was founded – one of the first being the freedom of speech.
They should be willing to establish free speech standards for their citizen users that aspire to the highest levels of expressive liberty, as proposed in the Free Speech Charter for the Internet recently released by NRB’s John Milton Project for Religious Free Speech. They should be willing to afford their citizen users nothing less than the free speech and free exercise of religion rights that are embodied in the First Amendment and as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court.
And while we can certainly understand their desire to enforce some rules of civility and decorum regarding the manner in which content is communicated – e.g., “no personal attacks or ad-hominem rebukes” – new media companies should not use those rules as a pretext for viewpoint censorship.
Rather than emasculating free speech, efforts should be focused on barring the conduct of those persons who commit violence, mayhem and murder in response to ideas they either despise or believe.
Dr. Frank Wright is President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB).