So how do we feel about Louis Farrakhan and other extremists being permanently banned from Instagram and Facebook?
Is that a good thing?
Is Facebook a better place because Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader, will no longer be using the platform to spread his message of hatred toward Jews?
And what about Alex Jones and his website InfoWars? Will we miss the diatribes he dishes out?
Still, the question lingers: Should we silence those whose opinions we find abhorrent? Or should we engage with them, tell them why we think they’re wrong?
In an official statement, Facebook said its latest actions represented nothing new.
“We’ve always banned individuals or organizations that promote or engage in violence and hate, regardless of ideology,” it said. “The process for evaluating potential violators is extensive, and it is what led us to our decision to remove the accounts today.”
Among the factors the company considers are whether a person or organization has ever called for violence against individuals based on race, ethnicity or national origin, whether they use hate speech or slurs in their social media profiles and whether they have had pages or groups removed from Facebook for violating hate speech rules.
For now anyway, social media giants can ban whoever they want. They are private businesses, and as such, they have no obligation to protect anyone’s First Amendment right to freedom of expression.
A federal court in Texas last year upheld that principle, dismissing a lawsuit filed by a man who claimed Facebook had violated his First Amendment rights by shutting him out of his account. The court ruled the First Amendment applied only to governmental limitations on free speech.
It’s possible that will change one day.
In an article for the American Bar Association, David L. Hudson Jr. argued that it was time for courts to change their outlook on the role of social media platforms.
“Many legal scholars have recognized that when a private actor has control over online communications and online forums, these private actors are analogous to a governmental actor, …” he wrote. “The Court should interpret the First Amendment to limit the ‘unreasonably restrictive and oppressive conduct’ by certain powerful, private entities – such as social media entities – that flagrantly censor freedom of expression.”
First Amendment advocates argue that in today’s society, social media platforms are the new town square.
They say that to ban people from those platforms because of their “dangerous” ideas is tantamount to banning them from that town square. These private entities are taking away a chance to participate in the public dialogue because they find an individual’s opinions objectionable.
And if we say it’s OK to ban someone because of hate speech, what’s next? Will we be banning people next because of their political leanings?
Jones sees himself as a victim of “racketeering” by “cartels.”
“There’s a new world now, man, where they’re banning everybody and then they tell Congress nobody is getting banned,” he told The Associated Press.
Another of Facebook’s targets, Paul Joseph Watson, told the AP he had been given no reason for the action and insisted he had broken none of the platform’s rules.
“Hopefully, other prominent conservatives will speak out about me being banned, knowing that they are next if we don’t pressure the Trump administration to take action,” he wrote.
Facebook also banned Milo Yiannopoulos, a former editor for Breitbart News known for his criticism of Islam. Contacted by the AP for a comment, Yiannopoulos emailed a simple reply.
“You’re next,” he wrote.
Kelly Hawes is a columnist for CNHI News Indiana. He can be reached at email@example.com.