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Craig Parshall, General Counsel

 

Whose Free Speech Is It Anyway?

October 10, 2013

Last week, I led a discussion at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, on the newest wave of censorship being perpetrated by Facebook, Apple, and Google against conservative and Christian viewpoints. Citizens holding those kinds of opinions are finding it more and more difficult to share them on the Internet platforms of those three media tech giants. That led to the next logical question among our panel of experts: what should we, or can we, do about it? The viewpoint discrimination practiced by those Web companies reminds me of a grade school boy who was part of our basketball group during recess. He was the proud owner of a yellow basketball that he brought to school every day. Each time we wanted to form a quick pick-up game on the playground, he would remind us that it was his basketball, and therefore he would make up the game rules. We would challenge him on that, but his answer was always the same: "Whose basketball is it, anyway?"

During the roundtable discussion sponsored last Thursday by our John Milton Project for Free Speech, we had three convincing testimonials about the phenomena of anti-conservative, anti-Christian censorship on the Web. Todd Starnes, a cultural commentator for FOX News, spoke to us about his own Facebook page. Todd tested the bounds of politically incorrect expression by posting that he was a fan of Paula Deen's cooking, a lover of Jesus-praising Gospel music, and proudly wears an NRA ball cap. Facebook shut his page down.

Gov. Mike Huckabee joined our discussion through a video message. He described how last year, during the Chick-fil-A controversy over same-sex marriage, he posted an invitation on his Facebook page for Americans who agreed with the traditional marriage position of Chick-fil-A's CEO, to show their support by frequenting that fast-food chain on a special appreciation day. Facebook shut him down too for some 12 hours, until millions of outraged citizens protested and Facebook relented.

Then there is the Manhattan Declaration – founded in part by the late Chuck Colson – an online statement of basic Christian conscience in matters of marriage, sanctity of life, and religious freedom. At our panel discussion, Eric Teetsel, who Colson hand-picked to run the project shortly before his death, described how the Declaration was approved by Apple and made available on its iTunes App Store for use on all iPhones. But when a cadre of gay rights activists protested, Apple removed the Declaration's iPhone app from its store without warning or notice.

During our Press Club discussion I shared our recent report, The Future of Free Speech, Freedom of Religion, and Free Press on Facebook, Google, Apple, etc. - a Current Assessment, where I also listed plenty of similar incidents of censorship by Google as well. Of course, we also heard words of caution from our other panelists – Adam Thierer, a respected media technology expert at George Mason University, and Trevor Burrus, a constitutional law pundit at the Cato Institute. They both reminded us that Facebook, Google, and Apple are private companies, and that the First Amendment does not constrain them legally. As private companies, they have the power to commit as much viewpoint censorship as they want. Beyond that, they indicated that those enterprises should enjoy the fruits of free enterprise, including the right to pursue their own policies that allow certain lawful opinions, but not others. Which brings us full-circle: what can, or should, be done about this shocking denial of – if not the "rights" of free speech, then certainly – the value of citizen free speech on Facebook, Google, and Apple?

As grade schoolers, my pals and I finally convinced the owner of the yellow basketball that he may own the ball, but the rest of us are necessary if the game is to be played. Yes, Facebook and their fellow Web Goliaths may own the right to control their social networking site, their Web innovations, and their iPhone systems. But without the messages, ideas, and opinions of ordinary citizens being posted, emailed, and shared on their sites, their companies couldn't exist. Whose "yellow basketball" is it? It is clearly theirs. But whose free speech is it, anyway? That, I would suggest, is ours.