The free-speech debate is reaching new heights after multiple online platforms refused to carry certain content in recent days, but former American Civil Liberties Union President Nadine Strossen says those sites are taking society down a very slippery slope and that combating controversial speech with more free speech is a much better policy.
The latest controversy centers around Apple, Facebook, YouTube and others refusing to carry content from Alex Jones and InfoWars any longer. Jones is a controversial figure and is behind notions such as the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting was staged and has even disseminated the contact information for certain parents impacted by the horrific attack.
But some liberals are quick to suggest Jones is just the start of banning certain viewpoints from social media, including Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.
“InfoWars is the tip of a giant iceberg of hate and lies that uses sites like Facebook and YouTube to tear our nation apart. These companies must do more than take down one website. The survival of our democracy depends on it,” tweeted Murphy.
Regardless of one’s view on Jones, Strossen says starting down the path of censorship is a very bad idea, no matter how odious the content.
“It’s never a one-off because we’re just down the slippery slope. Once you’ve breached that absolute principle – that dislike for an idea is never justification for censorship – then you’re opening the floodgates for all those mobs, for whatever ideas they happen to dislike, to put the pressure on. How can you possibly resist that?” said Strossen.
Strossen served 17 years as ACLU president. She now teaches law at NYU and is the author of “Hate: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship.” She says once it becomes acceptable to target “hate speech,” few ideas will be left that don’t offend someone.
“Everybody uses the epithet ‘hate speech’ for any idea that they hate. If that becomes the standard for what we’re going to hear and what we’re not going to hear, we’re not going to hear anything at all. Given the wonderful diversity of ideas in this society, one person’s hate speech is another person’s beloved speech,” said Strossen.
“If we don’t hold the line on the principle of neutrality, then literally there’s no idea that’s going to be safe,” she added.
While Strossen strongly disagrees with the decisions of Facebook, Apple and YouTube, she points out they are non-government entities and have the right to allow or reject any content they wish.
“The First Amendment poses absolutely no limit on any private sector company, no matter how powerful and including these very important communications controllers, namely social media,” she said.
“In fact, they have their own free speech rights. They’re analogous to publishers or your radio station. You can pick and choose whom you want to have on and whom you do not want to have on,” said Strossen.
But while they have that right, Strossen implores social media companies not to go down that path.
“That does not mean that we should not try to find other ways to pressure or encourage these companies to allow a free flow of ideas and information. After all, that’s what they initially pledged to do. Earlier this year, (Facebook CEO) Mark Zuckerberg, when he was testifying before Congress, said that his goal for Facebook was not to discriminate on the basis of ideas or ideology,” said Strossen.
She says the U.S. Supreme Court has given Americans the blueprint for dealing with offensive content.
“The Supreme Court has said that the answer to speech that we hate is not to suppress it but (to engage in) more speech. Answer it back, refute it, debate it or even ignore it.
“All of those are actually more effective than forceful silencing because when you do that, you turn the speaker into a martyr and the speaker and the idea get a lot more attention and sympathy than they otherwise have. So if you don’t like an idea, censoring it is actually a very ineffective response as well as one that is violative of individual liberty and our democratic form of government,” said Strossen.