In an interview with the Huffington Post this week, American Civil Liberties Union executive Ben Wizner, who runs the Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project for the law firm, said that liberals cheering Facebook and other social media companies for banning Alex Jones and Infowars should instead be standing up for the principles of free speech. Wizner warned that we shouldn’t trust private corporations to decide which political speech is good for our ears and which isn’t; he said that progressives should know that the same tools used to censor controversial speech on the right can be used to do the same to speech on the left.
Wizner acknowledged that there was a difference between a company like Facebook deciding when to ban a repulsive personality and the government itself cracking down on free speech. However, he said that wading into the waters of so-called “hate speech” provisions was a progressive cause that should probably be abandoned as well.
“If Jeff Sessions, for example, were deciding what’s hate speech, he would be less likely to think KKK and more likely to think Black Lives Matter,” Wizner said. “It turns out to be an extremely subjective term.”
That’s a bit of an unfair shot because it assumes that Sessions hasn’t spoken out against the KKK, when in fact he has many times and has in fact prosecuted them in the past. It also insinuates that there’s nothing objectively hateful about the speech coming from Black Lives Matter. But then again, we are talking about the ACLU and the Huffington Post here, so just keep in mind you’re on wacky territory. It doesn’t change the fact that Wizner’s underlying point is absolutely correct: Once you give yourself or someone you trust the power to start censoring speech, it will only be a matter of time before the speech YOU like is censored.
“I have some of the same concerns about platforms making those decisions,” Wizner said. “Governments at least purport to be acting solely in the public interest, but platforms are making these decisions based on what’s in their financial interest. So their interest might be in avoiding controversy, but do we want the most important speech platforms in the world to avoid controversy?”
Wizner concluded with a thought that should be inscribed on the front page of the internet.
“Do we really want corporations that are answerable to their shareholders and their bottom lines being the ones who decide which political speech Americans should see or not see?” he asked. “Because that’s what we’re asking for here.”
We don’t always agree with the ACLU. As a matter of fact, we find them to be as much about protecting left-wing interests as they are about actually guarding civil rights. But when you’re right, you’re right, and on this point, Wizner and the ACLU are absolutely right.
Free speech is messy, offensive, raucous, and reckless.
It can drive you crazy sometimes.
It can, and will, piss you off.
But the alternative is unthinkable.