“Legal Censorship:” A Growing Issue

I have a message for Google, Facebook and other online platforms that have recently begun to engage in “private censorship.”  While what they do is legal, since the First Amendment does not apply to private entities, if they continue their reliance on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of “hate groups” to decide who may or may not gain access or monetize their sites, they may well face an unhappy Congress and Federal government that might just decide to regulate their ability to decide whom to deny access.  I don’t think those platforms would like that.  But, though I am no fan of regulation, I would be more discerning if I were their CEOs.  

I write this in light of some recent events, and even today, one in which Google sent a threatening letter to a conservative organization demanding that their sire remove an “offensive article.” Interestingly, the article itself was not at all hateful, but the author was a part of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesvile, Virginia.  Hmm.  Perhaps the author is a bad fellow.  But we don’t even know that, only that he was there and part of that group.  Are we now going to go back to “group guilt” of past totalitarian regimes, albeit exercised by private companies?  I thought one was to be evaluated on his or her own merit.  Moreover, I would think the article itself would stand or fall on its own, not doomed to removal because of a major fallacy–the genetic fallacy, or, dismissing something because of its origin. Google threatened to “demonetize” this organization’s site if it didn’t comply.  Since it is a small organization (The Republican Liberty Caucus of Michigan) it had to comply.

This is Orwellian to be sure.  But legal Orwellianism.  We need competition from better platforms as soon as possible.  That is the best solution.  But Google seems bent on bringing a lot of bad attention to itself–from government.  If China can reign in Google and Facebook, then the United States can also–for better or worse.

Now I am also no believer in truly hateful, uncivil or derogatory speech.  As a Christian I believe–often naively I admit–that speech ought to be “seasoned” by grace and reason, not reactive and certainly not the kind that denigrates people as people–the ad hominem argument.  But in the public and non-Christian realm I have to put up with the cost of nasty speech in order to have open and transparent discourse and the free flow of better ideas.  If we start to suppress speech we don’t like, we will sooner or later find ourselves on the receiving end.  This is most emphatically true of government attempts to suppress speech, but also holds for public forums that purport to allow open exchanges.  

Again, this ought not to be license for Christians to say whatever is on their minds, much less to express clearly unbiblical attitudes.  And in Christian organizations there is a place for limiting such speech.  We of all people should be sensitive to those problems.  Ideally we should not even need to be told where to draw the line.  But Christians are fallen too and sometimes we too need to be reminded.  But that is different from the public and semi-public realms, outside the Christian organization.  It is quite unacceptable to place one or a few in charge of deciding in those organizations whose speech is acceptable and whose is not.  In fact, for government, it is illegal, unconstitutional to do so.  Google, Facebook, etc.  should, as a matter of conscience, voluntarily dissolve any attempts to make such decisions.  Or else, as I warned, they may find themselves in a very uncomfortable position.

37 thoughts on ““Legal Censorship:” A Growing Issue”

  1. Your article is very insightful. I heartily agree that the moment we begin to restrict fully legal, free speech, we as a nation can guarantee that we will begin a path to demise. Free speech is such a crucial and distinctive part of our great nation. I think that as a nation, we have become to accustomed to the mere ideology that anyone whose view does not align with ours is wrong and deserves a punishment. Although we cannot implement a nationwide etiquette class for fear of government overreach outrage, it should be easy for each Christian to live a life with speech that is filled with grace, reason, and love towards one another. By demonstrating this simple, free, kind speech we will be able to slowly turn the path of America towards a better future. But, for now it all begins with us and how we demonstrate the love of Christ towards all, despite the differing viewpoints.

  2. I could not agree more with this blog post. Free speech is a right that individuals gladly exercise but dislike when someone who disagrees with them exercise it too. It is anyone’s right to say whatever they like, however hateful it may be. With that being said, it is important for Christ followers to think, “Does what I am about to say benefit the kingdom of God?” before speaking. Everyone is fallen and makes mistakes but how Christians act (sometimes unfortunately) reflects who we follow, to the people outside of the Christian realm. Furthering myself in knowledge about something I do not agree with helps me to understand why I believe what I believe. I think it is ignorant to disregard what others have to say about what they believe because I do not agree. And it is even more ignorant to disregard what someone has to say because of their activities. I appreciate this blog post and would like to know what you think about political correctness in universities – a similar topic to free speech.

  3. Attempting to control what people can or cannot say always leads to demise. Governments have tried this tactic in the past, and they all ended in failure. Google and Facebook should end up taking a lesson from the history books: controlling speech does not work. The Third Reich created the Propaganda Ministry to control the press; they failed. The press in the USSR could only publish what the state allowed; the USSR collapsed. Granted, the suppression of the media was only one among many reasons that these governments failed, but it still factors in. It might be legal for private enterprises to limit free speech, but the more they do so, the more they will find themselves losing clientele. Governments that tried to control the press failed, and businesses that try to control what people can or can’t say will inevitably fail as well. If Google or Facebook can’t dissolve any attempts to restrict what people say out of conscience, they should do so for their own financial success.

    1. I believe that the reason those governments failed is because they were trying to attain too much power too quickly. Germany obviously tried to conquer the world and thus was defeated; and the USSR waged satellite warfare through which it weakened it’s government. The scary thing is, I think governments CAN censure speech as long as they have a relatively peaceful populous. Proof: China. If you are in Beijing and Google “Tienanmen Square”, you will get a geographical location–that’s it. China has been able to effectively censure speech because it has not engaged in geopolitical warfare. It took the smart route. Control the populous first, expand your borders second.

  4. Pot calling the kettle black. And without a hint of shame or embarrassment, on your part. I couldn’t do it (I have a conscience).

    Cedarville University practices a most similar kind of “legal censorship” against those who are not sufficiently conservative (and of course, against those who are not conservative at all). You have stated clearly before that you believe this is a good thing. But you question the practice if some corporation does it against someone who was linked to a white supremacist rally at which white thugs beat up African Americans, threatened to burn down a synagogue, and carried torches?!

    If I am reading you right, if some private organization censors conservatives, then it may be a problem that needs to be addressed, somehow. But when a private organization censors non-conservatives, like the way Cedarville has pressured tenured conservative faculty members to resign because they are not deemed sufficiently conservative, then it is OK with you.

    Matthew 7:3 seems pretty appropriate right now.

    1. “Pot calling the kettle black. And without a hint of shame or embarrassment, on your part. I couldn’t do it (I have a conscience)”

      What do you mean you couldn’t do it? You do it all the time.

      1. Do you have anything to add here other than playground taunts?

        If you don’t, then I assume that you accept that my argument is unassailable.

        Google or Cedarville University, private enterprises have a right to censor speech they do not deem appropriate.

        Google censors white supremacist websites like stormfront.

        Cedarville fires tenured professors not for obvious violations of doctrinal policy but for being insufficiently conservative.

        I think google in this instance is on higher moral ground. I know some conservatives would disagree, of course.

      2. I have observed several times in which you added nothing to a conversation except a “playground taunt”. Didn’t mean you accepted the actual argument was unassailable. Same here.

        You often make interesting and sometimes good points. I just wish you could do it minus the mudslinging. Might make people more willing to listen to you.

  5. “Perhaps the author is a bad fellow. But we don’t even know that, only that he was there and part of that group. Are we now going to go back to “group guilt” of past totalitarian regimes, albeit exercised by private companies?”

    You are being silly. And melodramatic.

    You don’t KNOW who it was? Did you not do any RESEARCH about the controversy before writing a blog post about it?

    I hate when I have to do the work that some are just too lazy to do themselves. The person in question was Washington State University College Republican James Allsup. The stuff he says is so offensive, I will not repost it.

    The video–which represents what can be heard today among our young “conservatives”– can be found here: http://www.thestranger.com/slog/2017/08/15/25349868/wsu-student-james-allsup-wrote-hateful-posts-on-facebook-before-he-went-to-charlottesville

    1. Jeff, I thought you were a liberal. Liberals support free speech–I thought. Offensive, maybe, probably? Should it be up to a platform like Google, which does hold itself out as public (as a sort of “common carrier” in legal parlance) and free to all, decide what it wants to allow and not to allow? It can do so, but if it continues, which I am sure it will, the top officials shouldn’t say no one told them so when government attempts to block their “legal censorship.” I don’t often like or agree with what you say to or about me, but I am not going to try to prevent your saying it. Of course I can’t speak for my colleagues.

      1. The idea of the United States government censoring or in any way regulating content on sites such as Google and Facebook is completely unheard of. There is no precedent or apparent likelihood of that happening so I’m really wondering why you would write an article “warning” them about it. Also, it is shocking to me that you would say that deciding that someone who attends a white supremacist rally is a bad person is akin to “group guilt of past totalitarian regimes.” Surely there has to be some sort of moral limit to your partisanship.

      2. James:
        Again I did not call for censorship. Nor am I morally condoning all speech. But I was simply saying that if Google, etc. continue they may come into some attempts to force them to all free speech.

  6. I agree that free speech is something that people should always have a right to. However, I also feel like this article is very emotional based. I have to agree with a previous commenter that this article is quite hypocritical. Although Cedarville University is a private organization as opposed to Google and Facebook, it does restrict people from doing anything that isn’t far right conservative. Granted it is a private organization and the students who go here do sign a covenant in agreement to what Cedarville stands for, so it isn’t necessarily wrong. It is just hard to agree with this article when is says, “if we start to suppress speech we don’t like, we will sooner or later find ourselves on the receiving end” when it seems as though many at the University tend to already suppress those who speak differently.

  7. Your blatant hypocrisy makes it difficult to see what you even stand for, other than the basic right-wing agenda which is constantly adapting to serve whatever purpose you require. You preach about small government and how government intervention of any sort will inevitably lead to a totalitarian state and then call on the government to “reign in” private companies on the basis that they have different opinions than yours. And all of this because they removed an article written by a white nationalist? It is remarkable to me how eager you are to give the Unite the Right crowd the benefit of the doubt. No one knowingly goes to a white supremacist, KKK rally unless they have some level of allegiance with those people. I don’t understand why it is such a problem for you that such people should not be welcome in society. Don’t you have anything more worthwhile to complain about than how terrible it is that people aren’t nice enough to Nazi sympathizers?
    On top of this you are a consistent apologist for Cedarville University, an institution which fires, threatens, intimidates and humiliates faculty who are brave enough to stand up for what they believe in so your words have very little, if any, credibility.

    1. You might want to read the post again. Did I call for government intervention against private companies? No. Do I think it could happen (or that the Feds might attempt it) if the platforms don’t allow more freedom of speech? Yes it could. Hmm. And I also had thought (shame on me) that liberals supported free speech. Well, they did, but apparently not now. And as for CU, you are barking up the wrong tree. There are legitimate religious reasons for any limitations on what a faculty/administrator may print/state. We enforce Biblical limits. And we do not hold ourselves out as a “public” platform like Google, etc.

  8. I respect your opinion. It concerns me that large corporations can control what is placed on the internet; therefore, limiting free speech through their own power. However, I do not see how they could be reigned in without government regulation, and I cannot support legislation that allows the government to prohibit businesses from regulating material posted on their platforms. Private institutions must be allowed to operate as they wish. Taking away Google’s ability to regulate what is posted using their platforms would only serve to be a censorship of Google’s free speech.

  9. Seems to be there is a big misunderstanding here of exactly what Dr. Clauson was saying. I have seen him accused of hypocrisy, sympathy with racism, a desire to have the government “reign in” private companies.

    None of this is true. Dr. Clauson specifically said he was “no fan of regulation”. His point was not advocating for government regulation, just the factual observation that the behavior of Google and Facebook could eventually run the risk of having happen to them here what has happened to them in other nations. Nowhere did he actually favor the government doing this.

    Dr. Clauson is also not wrong, and therefore, not hypocritical, when he makes allowances for Christian institutions that have a specific interest in maintaining and enforcing their values. He has not said that private companies like Google and Facebook do not have the legal right to limit speech but that because these companies in many cases monopolize online discourse and content worldwide it is troubling that just a few can make these decisions arbitrarily.

    And in speaking of the specific example he used, that of a person with repugnant racial views (another example than this one to make his point would clearly have been better), many, if not all of us do not shed any tears that such websites or posts are shutdown, but we must realize that while today, what is being censured is offensive to us, what is censured tomorrow under the same precedent might not be. But saying that someone who is racist should have the freedom of speech is not the same as agreeing they are right.

    1. “many, if not all of us do not shed any tears that such websites or posts are shutdown, but we must realize that while today, what is being censured is offensive to us, what is censured tomorrow under the same precedent might not be.”

      Nonsense in the form of milk toast.

      We should not worry about what MAY happen tomorrow. Rather, we should speak out in support what is right TODAY and against what is wrong TODAY.

      Is white supremacist ideology only “offensive to US”? Do you not believe in objective morality? Is white supremacism just offensive? I would say that it is a repugnant evil.

      Google is taking risks when it censors. Cedarville too is taking risks when it censors. But I applaud those who do right despite the risks they may incur in doing so. It is called integrity.

      1. Never said we should not speak out today. Of course we should speak out. I just think we need to find a way to speak against that which is repugnant and finding ways to marginalize it as much as possible without setting precedents that could have unintended repercussions in the future. I am not implying that tomorrow is more important than today.

        Neither am I saying that because taking an action is a risk means it should not be done and of course those who do right despite the risks deserve accolades.

      2. Jeff,

        I’ve been gone a while now, but I’ve been watching the arguments here. Since I don’t know a better way to contact you, I don’t have a better way to ask than directly: Can you succinctly tell us your process/principle for rooting your ethics in objective morality? I think if you could explain that it would go a long way towards helping people here understand your positions on things. There is a strong temptation to write people who do not subscribe to biblical literalism off as heretics or ‘progressives’ and I won’t deny that this probably happens to you here sometimes, but it may also be that your own position is almost inscrutable to the frustrated Bereans trying to argue with you. Very difficult to engage with an unknown position, it appears.

  10. Dr. Clauson, I have to disagree with the idea that a marketplace can fix the real problem of digital-dialogue-breakdown. In some ways I think it is like saying ‘the state of Ohio won’t let me say ‘X’, so what we need are a few competing states of Ohio to fix the problem.’ What I mean is that Google and Facebook are, in many ways, their own countries. They are almost exclusively used by almost everyone, and in this way I think they are almost monolithic. A conservative-friendly social media site (Breit-book, anyone?) is a fine idea, except that having this platform is basically useless if the vast majority of users are still on Facebook. You may be able to express yourself more freely there, but you are not going to be able to engage with the people who need to be reached with your message by segregating yourself.

    Unfortunately we have a growing problem of segmentation even within the almost-ubiquitous social media sites. Most people only interact with people who are like themselves on social media anyway… I think there may be a more pressing problem than the censoring of free speech on social media, if we acknowledge that your audience is already selected to be mostly the like-minded.

  11. Google and Facebook’s actions are concerning to say the least. That being said, I would be far more concerned if the government was the one who was regulating these points of view. I would much rather have to combat companies in the process of allowing free speech to be propagated on their sites than have to take on the government in court. It’s tempting to ask the government to step in and take charge in this case, but I do not trust them to stay put where they are initially placed. Is it frustrating and dangerous for private companies to censor speech? Yes. Is it worth having government intervention? Not yet and maybe never. Let’s allow this issue to resolve itself instead of just trying to stick it to the other side for political points.

  12. I agree with most of your argument about the subject of censoring Google and Facebook, but I do believe that they have the right censor what they want. Even though I do not agree with many of the things that Google and Facebook censor, we cannot just take away their right to do this, because as you stated, it would be a violation of the 1st amendment.

  13. Dr. Clauson:

    Do you think there is ever a place for censorship? I know that a lot of these online communities are very aware of their users and want a specific kind of audience. With a site like Facebook there is a real fear that, left uncurtailed, demeaning views could (and sadly sometimes do) result in people being pressured into self-harm and depression, if not worse. I could easily imagine, were I in the position to regulate an environment where failing to do so could have negative consequences, that censorship could be argued as an obligation for responsible social media sites.

    Do you think there is a case for responsible censorship?

  14. I agree that freedom of speech should not be inhibited, even in private entities; I believe it is a right we should all have access to. However, this means that not everything written and discussed will be beneficial to read. As Christians it is our responsibility to be discerning in what we are viewing, as well as what we ourselves are discussing; we must be sure to express our Biblical perspective on issues.

  15. It amazes me how many issues relate to free speech in one way or another; I say this after just getting done reading Dr. Haymond’s article regarding transgender individuals. This should give us even more incentive to fight for our basic rights, like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc. Keeping biblical principle tightly woven into our words and thoughts is a key part of free speech, and as Christians, to steward that right well, we must think heavily about the repercussions of our actions and words.

  16. First amendment rights must be kept in our society. Censorship can be very dangerous to the individual’s rights if abused. These companies know they have untapped power and, without a doubt, will see how far they can go without feeling consequences.

  17. First amendment rights must be kept in our society. Censorship can be very dangerous to the individual’s rights if abused. People must be able to discuss their opinions, so society can grow. These companies know they have untapped power and, without a doubt, will see how far they can go without feeling consequences.

  18. The censoring of websites from a private entity is a slippery slope. I don’t think it is illegal, but on the other hand something needs to change. The main sources for people to find information shouldn’t be restricting data just because they don’t like it. As expressed in the article above, I think the only true way to solve the problem is to get competitors who are willing to not censor. I don’t see this happening anytime soon, but it would be a start to solving a very difficult problem.

  19. When the internet is being censored, it is truly a slippery slope. The internet is a place where almost anything can be said and when google begins to censor it simply because of the person posting is part of a group that was involved in Charlottesville, what could be censored next? By no means am I condoning the actions, however it does make me think of what is next step in this censorship.

  20. Would Google’s actions be an example of Corporatism?

    Actions, such as this, is one of the reasons I’m using less of Google’s services, i.e. Chrome and search engine.
    I’ve become convinced that, if the topic is controversial, Google’s results will be skewed toward leftism, and biased against conservatism.

    Also, wouldn’t Google’s actions violate, or introduce a new form of, monopoly laws?

  21. I believe it to be misleading for Google to tell a site to remove an “offensive article” if the article was not offensive but whose author was simply not liked by the company. It is important for people to listen to one another even if they do not agree with them. I have heard this repeated several times, but the problem is still pervasive. Hearing from the other side is so crucial because it helps one evaluate with more perspectives and information than he or she would have on his/her own.

  22. It is definitely very hard to find the balance of when it is acceptable to draw a line in relation to censorship. It is also difficult as a Christian to know when grace should be applied to non-believers. As a nation, that focuses on freedom of speech, it is difficult to determine when it is no longer freedom, but a form of abuse.

  23. Free speech is so important in my opinion, people should be free to express and share their thoughts. That’s a way we learn and grow. I agree that we should always speak kindly and watch our words, but where there is free speech there is going to be hate and offensive speech. It’s unavoidable. We can only try to watch our words and encourage others to do the same, and develop some tough skin for others that will offend us.

  24. I really like your idea that Facebook and Google shouldn’t regulate free speech, but more importantly, they don;t have to. I like the idea that the market will regulate its self and doesn’t need organizations to regulate or suppress free speech. It’s easy for governments to suppress media like newspapers and television, but the internet always seemed to be a fairly free place. This news should be alarming, but it is also to be expected.

  25. Personally, I don’t want our nation to end up like China and/or North Korea in that we censor what people can see and say. But the line between allowing free, including offensive, speech and (too much/heavy) government regulation is a blurry line that cannot be easily defined.

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