• The First (Terms of Service) Amendment

    November 10, 2017 // 4 Comments »

    The First Amendment must catch up with the 21st century. What we say on Twitter and elsewhere online is too important to be governed by a Terms of Service agreement.

    I recently wrote about how the Ohio State University is preventing white supremacist Richard Spencer from speaking on campus. Despite falling under the First Amendment, Ohio State is looking for a legal loophole to block speech it doesn’t agree with.

    The semi-comforting news is that Ohio State’s face slap to the First Amendment is subject to legal challenge. Not so in the cyberspace-based public square of the 21st century. What should be the modern arena of diverse ideas is instead controlled by corporations and their self-written Terms of Service. Hiding behind the bushes of private ownership, the quasi-public forums on Twitter, Facebook, Google, and their predecessors and successors skirt the First Amendment to control what people say, read, and by extension, think. They are the censors the Founding Fathers feared. It is hard to imagine a more significant threat to the free exchange of ideas.

    It is time to expand the First Amendment to quasi-public institutions.

    The scope of the First Amendment has regularly expanded. In the earliest days of the Republic the Bill of Rights applied only to the federal, and not any state or local governments. It wasn’t until the post-Civil War incorporation doctrine, followed by court cases well into the 20th century, that those restraints on government applied equally to the states. In its own founding days Ohio State could have easily banned a speaker for his beliefs.

    Actually, Ohio State might have been able to ban a speaker it found offensive until even more recently. It wasn’t until a 1995 case that the Supreme Court held a university’s choices on funding student publications fell under the First Amendment’s obligation not to discriminate against particular viewpoints. Other expansions of the First Amendment took place in the 1950s, when the Supreme Court extended protection to non-traditional “political” speech, including nudity and advertising.

    The First Amendment grows with the times, and needs to do so again to take in what Justice Anthony Kennedy called the “vast democratic forums of the internet in general, and social media in particular.”

    The problem is that those forums today enjoy the freedom to suppress what once were inalienable rights.

    When you use various web sites, you agree to a dense set of conditions, Terms of Service, along with the understanding that Twitter (we’ll use them as shorthand for the range of sites and apps) can interpret things as they wish. So while the Supreme Court continues to hold the line against banning “hate speech,” Twitter is free to apply any standard wishes, along any political or ideological lines it wishes. Twitter may ban speech acting as an arm of the government, skirting the First Amendment because it can.

    That appears to have been what happened with Twitter’s decision to ban advertising from Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik. Both have been accused via a hazy intelligence community assessment of influencing the 2016 presidential election. While the federal government is stuck with that creaky old First Amendment preventing it from chasing RT and Sputnik back to Moscow, Twitter can — literally with a Tweet — silence them. Twitter quickly followed the Russian action with a decision to ban whatever it thinks are “violent groups and hateful imagery and hate symbols.” In the same week Twitter suspended the account of conservative Roger Stone. No explanation was given, though the suspension appears to be related to Stone’s angry Tweets directed at CNN.

    My own Twitter suspension occurred in the process of defending myself against several antifa people who conflated my defense of free speech in the broadest terms with what they believed was my personal support for nazi hatred. Their threats to “punch nazis” lead me to respond. My response was deemed by Twitter incitement to violence (though it would never meet the actual definition of that term the Supreme Court established) and I got the boot. When suspended, Twitter still allows you to read your timeline, so I could see attacks continue until the antifa people tired of it all. I could not block them or respond in any way. It felt a lot like five big guys holding me down while a bully whacked away.

    Google has quietly implemented censorship in the most well-intentioned way possible: to stop child predators. The internet giant tweaked its English-language search results to block sites it believes link to child pornography. “We will soon roll out these changes in more than 150 languages, so the impact will be truly global,” the company claims.

    While no one can argue against stopping child predators, those same tools can be used in other ways, known as the search engine manipulation effect. Generally, the higher an item appears on a list of search results, the more users will click on it. Research shows putting links for one candidate above another in a rigged search can increase the number of undecided voters who chose one candidate by 12% or more.

    Burying a link can have a similar effect. Google highlighting an OpEd that argues one way to the query “What is Trump’s Russia policy?” while leaving an opposing opinion out of the search results is a critical free speech issue of our time. A current Google search for “greatest president of the 20th century,” for example, highlights a brisk historical debate over Ronald Reagan versus Franklin Roosevelt, and brings up over 300,000 sites. What if it yielded only one? America would never accept government issuing a list of approved books for dead tree libraries few use anymore, but blithely accepts the same from the most-used research tool in human history.

    Technology has changed the nature of censorship so that free speech in 2017 is not as much about finding a place to speak, but about finding an audience. Censorship in the 21st century targets speakers (example: Twitter) and listeners (Google.) There will soon be no fear that anyone will lock up dissident thinkers in some old-timey prison to silence them; impose a new Terms of Service and they are effectively dead.

    The arguments that Twitter and Google are private companies, that no one forces you to use their services, and in fact you are free to switch to MySpace and Bing, are tired attempts to justify end runs around the First Amendment. Platforms like Twitter are the public squares of the 21st century (seven of 10 American adults used a social media site in 2016), and should be governed by the same principles, or the First Amendment will become largely irrelevant.

    Pretending a corporation with the global reach to influence elections is just another company is to pretend the role of unfettered debate in a free society is outdated. Absent a court decision that places quasi-public forums under the First Amendment, we face a future that will splinter debate and discussion into a myriad of ideological-based platforms such that no one will be listening to anyone they do not already support. It will be a future where Twitter and Ohio State protect students from the words of Richard Spencer at the expense of teaching them how to challenge those words.

     

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    Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

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    Posted in Democracy, Post-Constitution America

    Safety or Liberty? The Constitution Says We Can Have Both

    October 31, 2017 // 3 Comments »



    Certain things used to be more, well, self-evident. A great many of us didn’t necessarily like, but understood, the First Amendment protected some speech we strongly disagreed with, or some speech that even made us afraid. We accepted there was an often uncomfortable duty to protect the right to speech irrespective of its content. We understood if we allowed government and institutions to block one person’s speech, even someone with terrible ideas, they could block others. Right up to when they came for us.

    Then a collective mental breakdown took place in November 2016, and an almost organic sense that overnight America set itself on the path to fascism became the justification for the weakening of the First Amendment. Free speech is now seen by many as a liability, an enabling tool for anyone one might label a “nazi.” Some 69% of American college students believe hate speech (“Using language on campus that is intentionally offensive to certain groups”) should be banned by the government. It is an increasingly common point of view that taking away someone’s right to speak, a tool of fascism, somehow protects against the encroach of fascism.

    And so welcome to The Ohio State University, which has refused to allow white supremacist Richard Spencer to speak on campus November 15.

    The attorney representing Ohio State said Spencer would pose a “substantial risk to public safety, as well as material and substantial disruption to the work and discipline of the University.” Ohio State was no doubt also thinking of the $600,000 the University of Florida claimed it cost to provide security for Spencer’s recent appearance there. The Florida response included hundreds of police officers from five jurisdictions, as well as SWAT teams and snipers.

    Both Ohio State and Penn State (also denying Spencer the chance to speak) are being sued for violating the First Amendment. Without explanation, nearby University of Cincinnati will allow Spencer to speak.

    The law does not appear to be on Ohio State’s side. Blocking a speaker to protect public safety is an absolute last resort, and some risk to safety is part of the cost of the unfettered speech a democracy needs to thrive. Freedom, it seems, really is not free. The security costs are in fact to protect the First Amendment in broad practice, not simply one man in the specific.

    The security problems Ohio State cites are not created by the speaker; they are created by the mob expected to oppose the speaker and on the assumption Spencer’s supporters will fight back. A historian lecturing across campus from Spencer on Babylonian art needs no police presence. Allowing the mob to have the final word on who speaks can in fact help create mobs where none otherwise exist. Placing a dollar test on free speech means it is only available to those who can afford it.

    These questions are not new. Public safety has been long (mis)-used to silence. The town of Urbana, Illinois arrested someone burning an American flag (an act long-held to be a form of protected speech) claiming he was in danger from bystanders. Similar thinking has been used to deny permits for civil rights marches, with law enforcement saying they could not protect the protestors. Both sides in the abortion debate have used this argument as well outside clinics.

    While institutions do have an obligation to public safety, that obligation must be balanced against the public’s greater right to engage with free speech. The answer is rarely to ban speech outright simply to maintain order. One landmark case from 2015 provides some of the clearest guidance yet:

    “When a peaceful speaker, whose message is constitutionally protected, is confronted by a hostile crowd, the state may not silence the speaker as an expedient alternative to containing or snuffing out the lawless behavior of the rioting individuals. Nor can an officer sit idly on the sidelines — watching as the crowd imposes, through violence, a tyrannical majoritarian rule — only later to claim that the speaker’s removal was necessary for his or her own protection. Uncontrolled official suppression of the privilege [of free speech] cannot be made a substitute for the duty to maintain order in connection with the exercise of that right.”

    The case involved a group called the Bible Believers who used crude langauge (“Turn or Burn”) at an LGBTQ gathering. The judges continued in their opinion allowing the Bible Believers to speak:

    “We do not presume to dictate to law enforcement precisely how it should maintain the public order. But in this case, there were a number of easily identifiable measures that could have been taken short of removing the speaker: e.g., increasing police presence in the immediate vicinity, as was requested; erecting a barricade for free speech, as was requested; arresting or threatening to arrest more of the law breakers, as was also requested. We simply cannot accept Defendants’ position that they were compelled to abridge constitutional rights for the sake of public safety, when at the same time the lawless adolescents who caused the risk with their assaultive behavior were left unmolested.”

    The belief law enforcement, or any institution, can turn first to shutting down speech that requires physical protection, has failed other courts’ tests in cases are diverse as Occupy and where a Christian group brought a pig’s head to a Muslim Arts festival.

    I spent four years as an undergrad at Ohio State, and saw first-hand how the university can protect the free speech rights of a diverse group of speakers. A former member of the Black Panther party spoke in favor of racial violence. My time on campus was an era of fights for LGBTQ and other rights, and I saw massive police turnouts to protect gays marching across campus, and for a women’s “Take Back the Night” march through rough neighborhoods. Iranian students massed for anti-American demonstrations at a time when U.S. diplomats were being held hostage in Tehran. Meanwhile, Ohio State every other Saturday in the fall deploys a massive security presence for home football games, where the crowd rises above 100,000, multiples past who might show up to protest Spencer. Events likely to cause hardship to passersby are well-advertised, and students know to avoid them if they wish. Such events, past and current, clearly created the same “material and substantial disruption to the work and discipline of the University” that Ohio State fears Spencer will bring but were allowed anyway.

    And Ohio State knows things worked out smoothly last fall, in fact just days before the election, when the school welcomed white supremacist Milo Yiannopoulos to campus.

    Ohio State can do it, they just want to be able to pick and choose when they do it. And that is wrong.

    An institution cannot cite avoiding public disruption as the initial or sole reason to restrict speech. The problems of having Richard Spencer, or anyone, speak on campus are outweighed by the obligation to protect free speech. Getting rid of the speaker is expedient but unconstitutional. Maintenance of the peace should not be achieved at the expense of the free speech. It’s pretty much self-evident.




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    Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

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    Posted in Democracy, Post-Constitution America

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