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“Legal Censorship:” A Growing Issue

04 Sep 2017

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.