Category Archives: Law & Legal Philosophy

Private “censorship”

Here’s a thought experiment about what some people call censorship.

Let’s imagine we all live in a community called Mayberry. This is a pre-internet time, and imagine too that very few of us have a TV or a radio. The main media outlet in our town is the Mayberry Gazette.

Some community leaders worry our town is getting a bit overweight. They want to pass a law that enacts a 10 cent tax on the sale of any ice cream cone in Mayberry. They plan to use the revenue to fund free community tai chi classes in the Mayberry Community Center each morning.

I draft an op-ed to argue against the proposed tax. I make economic arguments about how this will impact the ice-cream marketplace (“it’ll encourage bigger cones!”). I warn of the adverse effects on our beloved local ice-cream parlor. I also make moral appeals. I say that people should be free to choose their treats and decide which if any exercise they will pursue. And so on.

I submit that to the Mayberry Gazette, which refuses to publish it. I spot the editor coming out of Floyd’s Barbershop. I ask why the paper declined my op-ed. The editor tells me that the proposed tax is a great idea and so the paper has no room for my views.

I say to the editor, “Shouldn’t we have open discussion?”

“Of course,” the editor replies. “We should have open discussion of sensible views. But, Andrew, your views threaten to undermine public health and morals.”

I then appeal to fairness. “Your refusal to publish my views is not right. You have the only newspaper and the only printing press in our town! You’re making it nearly impossible to get my views to the community. You’re censoring me!”

The editor then says: “If you don’t like that, go get your own newspaper.”

There are several issues here. Bracket whether the proposed law has merit. If you think it does, substitute another one that does not. Consider instead three issues about what the newspaper may, should, or should not do. First, there is a conceptual issue about whether to call the newspaper’s conduct “censorship.” Second, there is the issue of whether the newspaper has a right to do (or not do) what they do. Third there is the question about whether the newspaper is doing the right thing.

I am uneasy calling it censorship when the Mayberry Gazette refuses to publish my op-ed. My unease revolves around using the same term for what private people do as compared to what people who wield political power do.

Suppose I say you may remain in my home only if you make no mention of a certain politician’s name. That does not seem to be censorship. I offer you terms of our association, which you are free to decline by not entering my home. If you come in my home and speak that person’s name anyway, I am within my rights to demand that you leave. If you complain of censorship, I might reply, “whatever you want to call it, if you don’t like it, go speak your views elsewhere.”

I take the notion of censorship to include some notion of impermissibility. Whether something is permissible turns significantly on whether one has a right to do it. As a private party, the newspaper can do what it wants with its resources, just as you may decide what speech is permissible in your home.

Suppose instead the Mayberry Police tells the Gazette that if it publishes my op-ed, they will shut down the newspaper. That would surely be censorship. What seems to make it censorship is the legal prohibition, supported by the force of the state, against the dissemination of certain ideas. (This formulation is incomplete, since some legal prohibitions on speech and writing seem justifiable but don’t easily seem to be censorship.)

I do not want to press too hard on the conceptual point. It might come down to a battle of intuitions. Many people think of censorship more capaciously than I do. (See Andrew Jason Cohen’s recent post.) Let us bracket the conceptual point and move forward. Consider what private parties do when they withhold their own property as vehicles for disseminating certain ideas. Call that “schmensorship.” When if ever may someone schmensor?

The US Supreme Court restricts some private parties’ rights to schmensor. In Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins (1980), the Court said the state of California may require owners of shopping malls to allow people to petition on their premises. The Court said a state may require this of malls provided it does not clash with other constitutional protections. Suppose there is a compelling argument that shows it is not a restriction (or not a worrisome restriction) on private parties’ rights of free speech, free association, and property, when the state forces them to open their property to views they reject. Maybe we can argue shopping malls are (well, perhaps they were) the modern “town square” to which everyone must have access. I doubt the public’s access to a shopping center implies the owner’s diminished private authority over what happens in and through the private resource.

Back to Mayberry. I’m the local llama farmer (a seldom-mentioned business in the episodes). I am too busy with my llamas to have the time, the resources, or the know-how to “go get my own newspaper.” Nothing beats the Gazette for publicly airing views. When the paper schmensors me, the economic barriers to getting my views out are formidable. I can still print up my ideas and spread my brilliant prose. Doing so might be hard. It might be expensive. It might be time-consuming. But I could do that without jeopardizing my freedom.

In contrast, when the Mayberry Police censors me by threatening to shut down newspapers or imprison people who speak my ideas, the barriers they put up against my views seem importantly different. I may not then “go get my own newspaper” to publish my views. The barriers on disseminating ideas under censorship seem different in kind, and not just degree, compared to those of schmensorship. The prohibitions track different moral stakes. Schmensors leave me free to speak my mind if I can find the resources. Censors deny me the freedom to speak my mind no matter what resources I have.

Here’s a wrinkle to my little thought experiment. For fans of the show: who was the editor of the Mayberry Gazette?

That was none other than Sheriff Andy Taylor, who was also the local justice of the peace. That… complicates things. Even then, his schmensorship regime is not necessarily a censorship one. Will Andy lock me up for handing out my essay to willing passersby on property where I have permission to stand? If not, then he’s merely a schmensor. When I’m merely schmensored, I still have a shot at speaking my mind.

(Thanks to Andrew Jason Cohen for feedback on an earlier draft, and also for neither schmensoring nor censoring me.)

Censorship, Free Speech, Social Media, and The First Amendment

According to the state action doctrine, only government entities can violate the First Amendment. Twitter, Facebook, etc, are not government entities. They don’t violate anyone’s constitutional rights when they take down posts or remove their accounts. That does not mean that Twitter, FB, etc, aren’t censoring speech.

Some worry that Twitter, Facebook, etc are monopolies, violating anti-trust laws and that they thus ought to be regulated as common carriers. This strikes me as pretty obviously mistaken. Not only are they competitors, but others have sought to compete with them (MeWe, Parler, etc) and nothing rules out others trying to do so in the future. Some also worry that Twitter, Facebook, etc might act in ways meant to curry favor with the Federal government and that if that is true, since its plausible that federal regulators know this and might thus signal their desires to these firms, really Twitter, Facebook, etc are agents of the state and so they can, after all, violate individual constitutional rights. This also strikes me as pretty implausible, both legally and morally. Whatever control would be present would be pretty tenuous. If it weren’t, it seems unlikely that Twitter would have closed President Trump’s account.

When Twitter bans President Trump from its platform, it prevents him from speaking to a certain audience, limiting his speech. It does not thereby successfully prevent him from speaking to everyone; he has other avenues of communication. Of course, if the government censors someone, they also will typically have other avenues of speech. Consider the Comstock Act of 1873; it made it illegal to send certain “lascivious” material through the mail. Those wishing to share (speak about) those materials with others, could still do so—for example, by walking to others and talking to them directly. More generally, any governmental act meant to silence someone will close some avenues of communication while leaving others open. The fact that a social media company only closes some avenues of communication to (i.e, only partially silences) someone it bans from its platform is no different than what government does. If the latter is censorship, so is the former. Or so it seems to me.

If I am right, “government censorship” is a specification of “censorship,” as is “parental censorship,” “school censorship,” etc. “Social media censorship” would simply be censorship by a social media company. If this is wrong, we need another term for what the other agents just named do when they limit speech. That’s fine, of course. It’s a mere conceptual matter, one we needn’t worry too much about—what we are really interested in, I think, is whether social media companies or other private agents should seek to silence anyone. Still, if this is not censorship because only speech limitation by government is censorship, then “government censorship” is redundant—and I do not think it is.

That I think social media companies sometimes engage in what is properly called “censorship” does not mean those companies do anything wrong. Free speech is valuable—and so, I think, the first amendment leaves the US more or less absolutist in forbidding government intervention in speech. But that doesn’t mean private agents can never morally limit speech. Of course they can. Of course we can. For example, I stop my son from using certain words that are not appropriate for polite society. I censor him. There are also certain speech acts I would forbid in my classroom if I had to, but thankfully don’t—they don’t ever seem to come up; that is, my students don’t use them (in the classroom, anyway). Similarly, book burning (in some circumstances) by private individuals and book banning in private schools are likely forms of censorship. They’re both legal, even if disturbing.

Some censorship is not only permissible, but expected and probably morally good—disrespectful speech in the classroom, for example, is something we do well to make unacceptable (through non-legal, social means). Is censorship by Twitter, Facebook, etc, of President Trump and his followers good? I don’t honestly know. I am conflicted. On the one hand, I generally agree that more speech is the way to counter bad speech and that airing all views is likely to leave the bad (morally and epistemically) views with fewer believers. And (on the same hand), I worry that people are too often attracted to beliefs they are told they shouldn’t have (the “taboo effect”). Certainly, letting people discuss racist and anti-Semitic views hasn’t (yet) stopped them from spreading and letting people discuss conspiracy theories about fraudulent elections—for which there is no evidence—hasn’t stopped them from spreading. On the other hand, I don’t have any significant doubt that President Trump lies and that his followers are mistaken about a number of important factors, including the supposed fraudulence of the election, and preventing the spread of those false beliefs seems worthwhile. And, I admit, I simply love that in our society government officials face limits imposed by private entities. Corporate CEOs can tell the President of the United States that he can’t use their service; this is not something one can say in Russia or China.

Conclusion: like it or not (and I am conflicted), Twitter and Facebook do not violate any constitutional rights by censoring the President and his followers. As I said previously, this is a matter of property rights. Twitter and Facebook own their platforms just as I own my home. Just as I can forbid someone from entering my home to tell me why Nazi’s were right—or anything at all that I don’t want to hear—Twitter and Facebook can forbid people from using their platforms to say thinks Twitter and Facebook do not like. Twitter and Facebook have the right to censor those using their platforms. Whether they should or not, I cannot presently say.

Moralism, Community, and Civil Discourse

I’ve begun to think that one of the largest problems facing society is moralism, in a variety of forms. I want to try out this claim here. For the moment, take moralism to be a commitment to the view that some acts must be forbidden, socially or legally, because they are (a) judged wrong by the general populace, (b) in some way opposed to the continued survival of the general populace, or (c) simply immoral even if no one is hurt by them. I expect to return to this in future posts, but here want to discuss a possible relationship between moralism and our problems with civil discourse.

There are at least three ways to get someone else to believe or act as you. First, one can use force or coercion on the other, perhaps yelling at or bullying them. Second, one can appeal to the other’s emotions, perhaps getting them to feel bad if they don’t accept your view or do what you want. Third, one can use reason, trying to explain why what you want them to believe or do is what they actually should believe or do. All of these are ways that people “argue,” though only the last is “argument” in the philosopher’s sense. I take it as obvious that we should reject the first (as it treats persons as non-agents) and prefer the third (it alone treats persons as what they are, rational agents). Philosophers would prefer only the third be used; we sometimes find it hard to accept how much more prevalent and successful the second is. Advertising, public relations, and politics all rely on emotional appeals far more than reason. In doing so—in relying on appeals to emotions—they treat persons as agents, but not rational agents. This is better than coercion, but not as good as reason.

One sort of appeal to emotions I see a good bit of is an appeal to community. If we care about our community, we’re told, we’ll do this. If we care about each other, we’ll do that. This can be turned into a rational argument, of course: community is important, so we should do X which is necessary for community. Even then, we are rarely told why community is important or how X is necessary for it. Still less are we likely to be told how the particular community in question actually has the qualities of community that give it value. (Community can be a real value even if this particular community is not.). In most cases, the appeal is a form of the second type of moralism, where we are supposed to believe that the community requires what the appealer says—that absent our acquiescence the community will be endangered.

Generally, when one appeals to community, the goal is simply to get other people to do, believe, or live as one wants. It’s community as the appealer conceives it. If the appealer wants help with child care, the conception of community will be one where child care duties are shared, including by those who did not wish to have children. If the appealer believes women are or should be subordinate to men, the sought after community will be chauvinist. If the appealer is egalitarian, the sought after community will be egalitarian. If the appealer thinks people currently in the community are of more value than those elsewhere, the sought after community will be anti-immigrant. If the appealer thinks allopathic medicine, western education in STEM fields, or the like are necessary for decent or good lives, the sought after community will be one where those things are provided or even required of all.

Here’s the thing: if one is willing to appeal to emotions in this way to convince others to do, believe, or live as one wants, one does not value the other as a person. While appealing to emotions may be better than coercion, it still treats the other as less than oneself. It is manipulation with an assumption that the other is no more than a being to be manipulated to get what one wants. It excludes belief that the other should be reasoned with, that their reason matters. It thereby excludes, in the instance, belief in rational discourse with the other.

I expect to be discussing moralism further in future posts, but here hope only to have shown how continued reliance on moralism of one form prevents use of rational dialogue. This should be obvious: if we are genuinely committed to rational dialogue with our fellow citizens, we don’t coerce them and we don’t try to suade them with appeals to emotions, even if designed to protect our community as we see it.

The Saga of David Friedman

In my latest YouTube video, I chat with economist and legal scholar David Friedman on free-market anarchism; the Society for Creative Anachronism; tectonic geology; the quasi-anarchic legal systems of medieval Iceland and 18th-century England; being converted to anarchism by Robert Heinlein; how getting a Ph.D. in physics led to being an economist at a law school; the joys of fomenting war and exploiting one’s students; how he repeatedly achieved promotion through violence against his predecessors; how to make medieval armor both for humans and for turnips; how innovations in fireplace design facilitated adultery; and the perils of central planning for wizards.

Section 230: Platforms and Publishers

There has been a lot said lately about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. President Trump had threatened to veto the defense budget unless it were repealed. Trump and others are upset with internet platforms Facebook and Twitter because of their censoring users—users that might propagate false claims about widespread voter fraud or foreign governments somehow hacking our voting system and users promoting false claims about COVID-19 being a hoax, for obvious examples. So what is the issue here?

Here’s the heart of the matter in §230: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”  This does not mean the provider (the platform) can’t be sued; it means they can’t be sued for information (good or bad) someone posts on their site from another source.  In short, they aren’t publishers.  That all seems good to me.  It would also seem like a simple extension of everyday thinking about private property. 

Consider: if I install a bulletin board on my property (outside my house, near where people walk), I can post what I like on that board and I can allow others to put up posts as well. Intuitively, we wouldn’t think I should be held responsible for what other people post there.  One simple reason for this is that it would be too much to expect me to monitor everything. If someone posts something on my bulletin board—which, assume, I offer my community as a way to increase communication—and I can be sued for false claims they post, I am very unlikely to install such a board in the first place. I don’t have the time or inclination to check the truth of everything posted by others. Section 230 essentially treats internet platforms just like that, though obviously much larger, with millions of posts on their “boards.” If we want them to offer their means of public communication, we shouldn’t hold them responsible for the truth (or fairness) of everything posted on their service. This is why §230 treats platforms as good Samaritans rather than as publishers.

What seems to upset people, I should note, is the removal of posts rather than the leaving of posts that are false or unfair in some way. Consider my bulletin board again. While I am not to be held responsible for things others post, I can take things down as I please. What §230 makes clear, as I read it, is that since its my bulletin board, I can remove stuff you hang even if what I remove would be constitutionally protected if on some state owned medium. I can help you post stuff I like and I can remove stuff I do not. I’m not required to do either, but (because it is my property), I can do either.  Facebook, Twitter, etc, can do the same—remove your posts or help you post—as they wish. And just as my helping you post on my board does not mean I am responsible for your posts, Facebook, Twitter, etc are not responsible for what you post there.

In short, §230 treats firms offering platforms as providing a valuable service on their property that thus should not be overly burdened. Nothing in §230, so far as I can tell, gives platforms any special privileges such that they can reasonably be seen as an extension of the state (which would mean that posts would be constitutionally protected).

The only thing I might find worrisome is if a platform knowingly lied (or knowingly forbid true posts). In knowingly forbidding true information, a platform might cause actual harm. If that can be demonstrated, I might agree that there should be legal interference. Given, though, that users are voluntary participants, this seems unlikely—you can’t claim to be harmed if you are a voluntary participant. To explain: If you come into my house after I tell you I might lie to you when inside, on my view, there should be no legal interference. Of course, in such a situation, you shouldn’t visit me. Indeed, you’d be well advised to unfriend me. Similarly, if you think the internet platform is being dishonest in the way it censors posts, you should probably leave it. At least this is a reasonable response if you’ve given it serious thought and conclude that the benefit to staying is minimal. I would suggest that staying has a clear benefit: exposure to views one doesn’t know or agree with. That can help one improve if one is open to it. But though I think we should all be open to hearing rational discourse, I don’t know that anyone is obligated to do so.