New threat to freedom of speech

Published 6:47 pm Tuesday, September 24, 2019

When I first started using Facebook years ago, I would post comments on a variety of topics. Sometimes, I would post and engage in controversial discussions.

That changed about two years ago when I posted something admirable that our president said. I thought that the post would receive a comment or two. I was wrong. That post ended up creating almost 100 comments; many of which I could not repeat in this column. Almost every four-letter word was used by others over a three day period. On day three, I did two things — erased the post and committed to only posting positive, non-controversial content.

However, as vile as some of the comments were, each one was protected speech under the 1st Amendment to the United States Constitution. The first is part of the Constitution because our Founding Fathers grew weary of seeing their friends imprisoned and/or executed by King George for speaking out and disagreeing with him.

To illustrate the importance of freedom of speech, consider the following countries that banned or significantly curtailed it — the Third German Reich, the Soviet Union, Cuba and Cambodia. Even today, many countries like China and socialist European states do not honor this natural right. 

Recently, Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, weighed in on the first. Mr. Smith asserts that social media and tech companies need to change their policies on what content they can host.

He seems to hold this position in the wake of live-streamed mass shootings and other content deemed by some people to be dangerous. Some countries have considered laws that would put the onus on social media to regulate content posted on their platforms. For example, after the Christchurch massacre in New Zealand, Australia passed the Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material Act of 2019, which makes it a criminal offense to fail to remove violent content “expeditiously.” Punishments include heavy fines and even imprisonment. Australia’s law would be deemed unconstitutional in the U.S. because it is overly vague, allowing for people to be arrested anytime they post something on a social media site that is interpreted by law enforcement to be violent content.

Mr. Smith seems concerned that since tech companies are global enterprises, corporations such as Facebook and Twitter will need to police content more stringently. He believes that Microsoft and other tech companies will need to adapt regardless of U.S. law.

Unfortunately, Smith is not alone in calling for regulation. Last March, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called for governments to set standards about how to handle and remove “harmful content” in an op-ed in The Washington Post.

Personally, I do not enjoy watching violent videos, engaging in hateful political debates on Facebook or even seeing my friends argue on Facebook. However, if we fail to protect all forms of speech (with the exception of criminal acts such as terroristic threats and child pornography), the march toward government regulation of what we can and cannot say will eventually erode one of the most important natural rights embedded in the Constitution — the freedom to speak and write.