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Mark Zuckerberg deserves praise for his noble stand on free speech

Aaron Schwartz

For people fearful of the power of companies like Facebook and Twitter, Mark Zuckerberg is right out of central casting. A Silicon Valley billionaire with an androidish demeanor, he comes across as more machine than man in responding to politicians on Capitol Hill who, at times, appear on the verge of hysterics over the supposed “lies” of their opponents.

With the House Financial Services Committee hearing this past week, Democrats and the media condemned Zuckerberg and his refusal to put a stop to false political ads. As unpopular as it may be, however, Zuckerberg is right that what members are demanding from Facebook is censorship and, if allowed, it would create a dangerous regulation of free speech. Indeed, the scariest thing to come out of the hearing, besides the relative silence of civil liberties and free speech groups, is that Zuckerberg may be one of the last barriers to a system of political censorship in America.

Watching the cable news coverage of the hearing, you sensed the rising revulsion on some networks over his refusal to promise to review and regulate political ads for alleged lies. Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez of New York made regulating political speech sound noble and obvious by demanding, “So you will not take down lies or you will take down lies? I think that is just a pretty simple yes or no.” The answer, if you believe in free speech, is a simple no. Media hosts and writers expressed disbelief that Zuckerburg would allow lies to pervade the 2020 election, and Ocasio Cortez was heralded for “schooling” and “dismantling” him.

I have written for years about the erosion of free speech in Western democracies, particularly in Britain, France, and Germany. Governments now regulate political speech and prosecute those deemed to engage in hate speech or false speech. In the United States, calls for greater speech regulation are growing on college campuses all across the country and in media outlets, both once the bastions of free speech.

On college campuses, conservative or controversial speakers are routinely prevented from participating in discussions. A controversy at the Harvard Crimson newspaper is illustrative of this trend. The student newspaper was completing a story on immigration issues and protests. The reporter did what any responsible journalist would do and asked the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency for a response. That request triggered a furious counterprotest. It was not the content of the comment that sparked it, but the mere solicitation of comment from the agency.

University of Pennsylvania students recently prevented a discussion with former Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Thomas Homan. Georgetown University students prevented others from discussing immigration policy with Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan. No action was taken by the college against the students. Northwestern University students stopped a class from discussing policy with an Immigration and Customs Enforcement representative after the class heard from an undocumented person. Student April Navarro rejected the right of the professor to have a “nice conversation” about the agency. Again, no action was taken by the college against the students.

The House hearing with Zuckerberg revealed what House Democrats want to create, which is a system where companies can block political ads deemed false. Of course, reasonable minds can disagree on what is false in politics. But history shows that once this power is given to regulate speech, the appetite for censorship then becomes insatiable.

An insight can be found in the work of the British Advertising Standards Authority. Established to weed out gender and racial stereotypes and other social ills in advertising, the authority has set about its task with humorless zeal and recently banned commercials for Philadelphia Cream Cheese and Volkswagen. The first showed men so lost in enjoying the cream cheese that they leave their babies on a conveyor belt.

The fact that it was a joke did not matter since, as Ella Smillie of the agency explained, “The use of humor or banter is unlikely to mitigate against the potential for harm.” The commercial was spiked for implicating that women are better at child care. The Volkswagen commercial was taken down for having images of male astronauts and hikers along with a brief shot of a woman with a baby. Clearly, Volkswagen was saying that women cannot be astronauts or hikers.

Americans have long resisted such boards or authorities. Yet Democrats are using Russian internet trolling operations and presidential tweets to make another play for speech regulation. Would Ocasio Cortez feel the same way about Facebook banning an ad featuring her false assertion that the “vast majority” of Americans do not make a “living wage”? Or her false assertion that Walmart and Amazon do not pay minimum wages? Or how about her false assertion that most of “Medicare for All” could be paid for by simply recouping $21 trillion lost due to “Pentagon errors”?

Then there is Representative Adam Schiff using a House hearing to give a false account of the transcript of the call between President Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart. The Washington Post itself found repeated misrepresentations in his speech. While assuring the public that this was the “essence” of the transcript, he proceeded to falsely speak in the voice of Trump as he read, “I hear what you want. I have a favor I want from you though. I am going to say this only seven times, so you better listen good. I want you to make up dirt on my political opponent. Understand? Lots of it, on this and on that.” It clearly was false, designed to enrage.

But where does Facebook stop? Trump offers troubling descriptions of undocumented persons, while Hillary Clinton has hinted at Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii being a “Russian asset.” Then there are contested descriptions of climate change on both sides. One can imagine constant demands from groups to take down ads as factually misleading, a more sophisticated version of the shout downs on college campus.

There is an alternative to the kind of political commissar demanded by Ocasio Cortez and others. It is free speech. Zuckerberg correctly stated that plenty of third parties currently review and contest false political statements. He would leave political speech to politics. Facebook already engages in too much content regulation of sites and postings. Yet that is still not enough for many House members, who want to decide when and how individuals and groups can speak out in the political arena.

The truly insidious aspect of this effort by those on the left is that they are dressing up censorship as the protection of democracy to try to convince citizens to give up core free speech protections. In the silence that would follow, few would be able to object. After all, the censors could merely treat censorship objections as simply more “lies” to take down.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.

Tags Adam Schiff Censorship Congress Constitution Donald Trump Government Hillary Clinton Mark Zuckerberg President Rights Technology Tulsi Gabbard

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