Time Magazine Explains Why Section 230 Is So Vital To Protecting Free Speech
from the free-speech-under-attack dept
For years now, we’ve been highlighting just how bad various mainstream media publications have been in discussing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Therefore, it’s a bit of a pleasant surprise to find out that Time Magazine has published an excellent explainer by David French, a lawyer who has been a long time free speech supporter. At the very least, this new article makes up for an earlier Time article that appears (like so many) to confuse Section 230 with the 1st Amendment in terms of what enables the posting of disinformation online.
French’s piece is more than just a defense of Section 230, it explains — as we have in the past — how Section 230 enables free speech online, and why that’s important, even as it may sometimes be abused.
It’s difficult to overstate how important this law is for the free speech of ordinary Americans. For 24 years we’ve taken for granted our ability to post our thoughts and arguments about movies, music, restaurants, religions, and politicians. While different sites have different rules and boundaries, the overall breadth of free speech has been extraordinary.
As it always has through human history, free speech has been used for good and ill. Anti-vaccination activists abuse liberty by spreading medical misinformation online. Social media bullies have named and shamed even private citizens for often trivial offenses. But on balance, free speech is a great gift to American culture. As the courageous abolitionist Frederick Douglass declared in 1860, free speech is the “dread of tyrants.” It is the “great moral renovator of society and government.” The freedom to speak has been at the foundation of America’s most potent social movements.
French then points out that many of the people (on both sides of the political aisle) now attack Section 230 are famous and have the ability to speak out and have the media repeat what they are saying. That is, those are people who have their own channels to communicate, and thus have much less of a reason to care about the fact that 230 opens up such channels of communication to everyone else, allowing them to speak their minds and get their thoughts out there:
But note well the speakers here. Hawley, Biden, and Cohen have immense public platforms. Hawley even enjoys an extraordinary legal immunity that other citizens can’t even dream of – thanks to the Constitution’s Speech and Debate Clause, he can’t be held legally responsible for anything he says in the performance of his official legislative duties. There are no more privileged speakers in America than members of Congress.
Celebrities have their own websites. They’re sought after for speeches, interviews, and op-eds. Politicians have campaigns and ad budgets, and they also have abundant opportunities to speak online and in the real world. If they succeeded in making social media companies liable for users’ speech, they would pay no meaningful price. You would, however. Your ability to say what you believe, to directly participate in the debates and arguments that matter most to you would change, dramatically.
French is making a very important point here. The effort to kill of Section 230 is, fundamentally, an effort by the rich, powerful, and connected, to shut off a key channel of speech for the marginalized, ignored, and shunned. It is an explanation for why Section 230 helps those who need it most, and how efforts to cut it off are, at their core, an effort by those in power to silence those without power.
In my opening paragraph, I argued that reforming or repealing Section 230 would represent “one of most significant acts of censorship in modern American history.” An entire contemporary culture of speech and debate exists thanks to Section 230. A generation of young people has grown up knowing nothing but the freedom to speak online.
Yes, this freedom is often abused, but – truly – whose fault is that? Is it Twitter’s fault if I lie about the news? It is my responsibility to exercise my rights responsibly. And the failure of others to respond well to freedom should not result in the loss of my right to speak. Politicians will sacrifice nothing if you’re silenced. In fact, when they speak of Section 230 reform, understand that they are uttering the ancient argument of powerful censors throughout American history.
This is not a new argument. We have tried to argue over the years that enabling government-backed censorship powers will inevitably create scenarios in which the powerful and connected censor those without power. It will harm the most marginalized, but be done in the name of “protecting” them. It would be a huge mistake, and, as French rightly points out, an affront to free speech online.