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Limiting freedom of speech on the internet is acceptable

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Make no mistake, in the United States, we pride ourselves in proclaiming our love for our freedom. We boast the First Amendment, our right to unfettered freedom of speech. But recently that love for freedom has become a defense for expressing radical thoughts, and President Trump has declared war against the press in the name of freedom of expression.

We've also seen an air of hypocrisy through all of this as some of Trump's supporters have been fueled to express their First Amendment rights through bigoted racism. Trump has set a precedentamong his base, instilling the idea that one can express any thoughts –– valid or invalid, right or wrong, –– if they so desire. This has resulted in a radically charged faction of people buying into propaganda sites like InfoWars, and expressing their First Amendment on platforms such as Gab.


Now more than ever, we have seen that fake news has entered the arena of mass media. Conspiracy theorists such as Alex Jones have held a clout over alt-right viewers through hate speech, racist attitudes, and xenophobia. These sites operated unchallenged until the giants of Silicon Valley were awakened after the 2016 election and began their due diligence in terms of filtering and restricting what appears on their sites. For example, InfoWars was removed from Apple, Facebook and Youtube, and the website Gab, where the Pittsburgh Synagogue attacker posted his anti-Semitic views, was temporarily taken down after the shooting.

While I do respect freedom of speech, I often find that many hide behind this argument in order to express offensive or radical thoughts on social media. The current ordeal lies in the fact that there are two wars of freedom being fought. The Trump administration has engaged in a war with the press, removing journalists from the White House press room because of personal vendettas. At the same time, his disinterest in civility empowers those with radical thoughts and views to express their opinions without limit.

One can argue that liberals pushing to take down sites such as Gab and InfoWars stems from political bias. But, these sites have created attitudes that transcend far beyond political parties, betraying both morality and humanity. These sites allow hate-filled anger to manifest in its ugliest form because we have been too generous in extending the benefit of free speech to the wrong proponents.

The argument that the internet has helped curb voter apathy and political disengagement by offering people a space to publicly express their opinions and engage in robust discussion merits some consideration. But, it can also be seen as a double-edged sword.

"The internet is both a blessing and a curse for social communication,” David Skover, professor of constitutional law at Seattle University School of Law, said. “On the one hand, it democratizes speech by removing the gatekeepers of the traditional mass media. On the other hand, as we saw in the recent presidential election, it enables foreign bots to pollute the political speech environment in ways that undercut our democracy."

The spread of fake news through social media platforms during the election season caused irreparable harm to our democratic process. When action is taken to limit hate speech, many alt-right proponents get rattled. They cry foul, challenging the legality of the actions taken by Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to curb hate speech.

“In federal and state constitutional free speech law, there is something called the ‘state action doctrine,’” Skover said. “Because of that doctrine, government alone — and not private individuals or entities — must respect speech liberties. Unless a private party is coerced by the government or is involved in a collaborative relationship with the government — such that the private party will be deemed a state actor — that private party is not subject to constitutional obligations. Thus, a purely private individual or corporation that cannot be designated a state actor cannot be held to violate First Amendment free speech rights or similar speech liberties protected under most, if not all, state constitutions.”

It becomes evident that the argument pertaining to the illegality of not allowing hate speech on social media sites fails since a purely private entity is "held to violate First Amendment free speech rights." When the legal argument crumbles, radicalism's last resort has been disproved. Since it’s hard to find a moral basis for allowing hate speech, one seeks the easier option of using the “free speech” card. But when there's political and social dissonance, it does not take much to enter the realm of violence through unfiltered freedom of expression.

Freedom of speech defines America. But freedom of speech in the case of Gab or InfoWars must be curtailed because it leads to more violence and dissonance. Freedom of speech should not be used as a carte blanche to spew hatred.

Reach contributing writer Priya Sarma at Twitter: @Priyayasarma

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(1) comment

Lans Ellion

Who defines "hate speech"? This is the problem that makes regulating any speech unworkable and dangerous. Giving someone the power to regulate "hate speech" gives the power to the majority to marginalize minority voices. For example, is blasphemy hate speech? The Westboro Baptist Church is a religion. Is criticism of their homophobic views "hate speech"? The answer is that it could be depending on who defines "hate speech." If the majority of religious voices defined blasphemy as hate speech that could have prevented the gay community from fighting for their rights. What about feminist who have expressed anti-male viewpoints like Sarah Jeong of the NYT? Were her words "hate speech" deserving of being restricted and preventing her from fighting for feminist causes? Also, what rises to the level of hate? Is calling a red headed person a "ginger" hate speech? What about the cliche idea of popular kids mocking the dorky ones, is that hate speech? As soon as you start drawing lines in the sand on what and what isn't hate you start to realize that giving anyone the power to regulate speech simply gives a group in power the power to marginalize other people's voices and to protect their own voices. This is a dangerous path. And, today when so much of the public square of voices takes place on private land (twitter, youtube, etc.) we need to recognize that these have become public squares and free speech must apply in these areas.

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