Free Speech

I can’t say I was upset to hear about Alex Jones recent removal from social media and podcast platforms. The man is a steaming pile of garbage and I have zero sympathy for him. However, after a discussion with friends and some conversations on twitter I started thinking about my own position on censorship and what I believe is acceptable speech.

I am Irish. The US has the first amendment to its constituent ensuring a persons right to free speech, in Ireland free speech is protected by Article 40.6.1 of our constitution with the caveat it may not be used to undermine “public order or morality or the authority of the State”. We have a ridiculous blasphemy law on our books due to this. Some European countries go further and have laws prohibiting certain types of speech. Hate speech and incitement to violence is banned in the UK for example, and holocaust denial is banned in France and Germany. So Europe does not have the same culture of absolute free speech as the USA. But what about me? Am I a free speech absolutist or do I have a more nuanced European attitude? Is removing Infowars from the biggest online platforms a slippery slope? Should I rally to defend his right to free speech even though I detest what he has done to the families of Sandy Hook with every fibre of my being.

I want to work through a few of the points I have seen made over the past two days. A friend of mine compared it to a catholic book store refusing to sell the God Delusion by Dawkins. Fundamentally, this is correct. I don’t believe a business has to sell or promote a product it does not agree with. However the problem with this particular example is that the Catholic bookshop is by its nature selective. It focuses on Catholic books and the book was never stocked to begin with, it was not sold for a few weeks and then removed. Also a Catholic bookstore has a niche remit. A podcast platform focussing solely on music podcast should be allowed delist a podcast that changed its focus to fly fishing. What makes Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter different is the monopoly they have on content distribution. They are now the main online media portals and content distribution platforms for a large percentage of internet users, and with that comes certain responsibilities, they need to be regulated and they need to adhere to codes of conduct, self regulation won’t cut it.

Next I want to talk about the firing of James Gunn and James Damore. I have sympathy for both these cases, not because I like or agree with them, but because I feel you shouldn’t be fired for your beliefs or stating your opinion. Now, did these two individuals breach contracts? I’m sure they did, but employment contracts can be so broad as to be meaningless. What should a company do if 100 or 1000 employees come and say they are going to quit if this person isn’t fired? It’s a tough one. I feel sympathy for the employees that have to work next to this person and I see it from the companies point of view, it makes a lot more business sense to fire one person than lose tens or hundreds of staff members, and potentially many more people that decide to never work for you. Also, a company has an obligation to do what is right for its staff and shareholders, I am sure thats what Google and Disney tried to do in these situations. So, while I feel sympathy for the two people fired, its hard to argue a company should continue to employee people that negatively affect other members of staff. While these companies are massive, they don’t have a monopoly on jobs. The people affected can find work elsewhere.

The next comparisons I have seen being made is to the bakery that refused to bake a cake for a gay wedding due to the religious beliefs of its owners. If the owners had a belief in white supremacy, would we accept them refusing to serve a black person because they felt they should not be allowed marry? Of course not, you will struggle to find any right thinking person that would argue that is acceptable. That is discrimination. The bakery sold cakes to everyone, they are not a “whites only” bakery or a “catholic bakery”, they have not focussed on a niche. A customer requested their standard service, didn’t violate any explicit or implicit agreements (they didn’t stand at the door harassing other customers) and they shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate against a group because of the way they look, talk or because of who they wish to marry. If a group had started harassing customers and affecting business they would be well within their rights to not serve that group and call law enforcement. I don’t believe this is a free speech issue. You could argue its a religious freedom issue but at its core its a discrimination issue, and discrimination should not be tolerated. The US supreme court ruled in favor of the bakery.

Finally, I have seen the catholic organization that refused to cover contraception in its health care plan being raised. Again, here we have an organization refusing to comply with a law due to their religious beliefs. Is this any different to the bakery? I would argue it is. They are a catholic charity. This is specific and the catholic church has a strong objection to contraception. In this case I am inclined to agree with the charity. Is objecting to contraception discrimination against women? You could argue many catholic teaching and practices are discrimination against women but anyone working for them would be aware of its rules at the time they accepted the job and would surely know by working for a catholic charity they are helping to perpetuate these teachings and practices. I don’t believe the charity should be forced to cover contraception, even though I do believe the church should get its head out of its behind and start focussing on the health and well being of its constituents and not some doctrine scribbled down by old men decades and centuries ago. I don’t believe this is a free speech or discrimination issue, it is a religious freedom issue. Work to get your religion modernized and this problem goes away. The US supreme court referred the case back to lower courts.

So what about Apple et al? Was removing Infowars discrimination? No, it wasn’t. They have not targeted a wide group, they have picked on one company. Are they niche services? No, they don’t say anywhere they don’t publish content published by despicable human beings (just look at Twitter if you are in doubt), I am sure Infowars violated some T&Cs but again these are so broad as to make this meaningless. However, at the moment these business have no obligation to distribute his content, and by violating their T&Cs they are well within their rights to remove him.

So it really comes down to free speech, does Alex Jones have the right to say whatever he wants and not get kicked off the major platforms because of it? Should these companies be stopped from banning any legal content due to their de-facto monopoly statuses?

As much as it pains me to say this, no, Infowars should not have been removed. I would have much preferred to see the tech giants join together and ask for regulation or a code of conduct, but thats never going to happen given the arrogance that permeates these institutions. What we need is the so called left and right to stop arguing with each other, recognize these companies for the monopolies they are, and treat them accordingly. In the long run having a set of rules that can be referenced and a legal route where they can be challenged is in everyones best interests, even the tech companies that will never admit it.