ABFE Free Speech Report: Debate Over Who to Ban, and Not Over Ideas, Is a Bad Idea

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The ABFE Free Speech Report is a column by David Grogan, ABA’s director of ABFE, Advocacy & Public Policy. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the American Booksellers Association. Grogan welcomes comments and suggestions at [email protected].

There is plenty of debate in this country. But all too often, on social media at least, it is over what speech is appropriate and not over what is actually being said.

A few weeks back, the Wall Street Journal reported that Google, Facebook, and Twitter are essentially trying to stay ahead of would-be censors in the U.S. Congress — by figuring out who to censor, according to the article.

In an effort to determine what constitutes acceptable speech, the Journal reports, Google, Facebook, and Twitter are bringing in left- and right-wing groups to help. “The world’s biggest social media companies,” the article states, “under fire for failing to police content on their sites, have invited an array of outside groups to help them figure out who should be banned and what’s considered unacceptable.”

I suppose I could be accused of being naïve were I to suggest that these companies should be figuring out ways to explain to users the importance of free expression and how it is the cornerstone of our democracy, about how to get across that the best way to deal with speech you do not like is to counter it with dialogue and debate.

And while, yes, these three companies are private businesses, their ubiquitous nature means they hold near government-level power to censor speech. The decision by YouTube, for example, to remove a content creator may marginalize the creator, could ruin a career, and could undoubtedly cast lasting aspersions on a person’s morals and character. It furthermore shuts down any debate and discussion, and leaves everyone festering in their echo chambers.

Moreover, this issue does not occur in a vacuum; it has a ripple effect. After watching the public excoriation of someone on social media or a de-platforming (and the latter oftentimes follows the former), a user might conclude that it is probably best to remain silent about things that may inflame the platform providers or other users on the platform. So, they remain silent rather than say something they fear might transgress the unwritten orthodoxy. They self-censor.

After Google, Facebook, and YouTube banned controversial media personality Alex Jones from their platforms, journalist Glenn Greenwald took to Twitter and cautioned everyone who was applauding Jones’ de-platforming that censors always start at the fringes — and then work their way toward the center.

As free speech proponents, we understand that to support someone’s right to speech does not imply implicit support for what is being said. More than ever we need to defend the right of others and ourselves to speak “inappropriate” thoughts. We need people to be offensive. We need people to broach topics where others fear to broach.

These growing calls to censor should teach us all a valuable lesson about the importance of the First Amendment. Throughout time, great thinkers have been censored. Indeed, sadly, some have even been executed, branded heretics, or burned at the stake for beliefs that have contradicted the established dogma of their day. Thankfully, today in the U.S., people are not executed for saying something that offends others, but they do run the risk of being flamed and/or de-platformed on social media. While not nearly as onerous or as final, of course, this still results in silence rather than dialogue.

Left unattended, these burning embers of censorship will grow only bigger. We must support the right of all to speak, to publish, to write, to pontificate, and challenge our orthodoxy, be it religious, cultural or political … otherwise, caught up in this wash of censored speech will be thoughts that are provocative, that spur deep introspection, and that may even open minds. History informs us that, inevitably, it will censor someone who is telling us the truth — a truth that we do not want to hear.

Have you heard Counterspeak?

Speaking of censorship, this month’s Counterspeak podcast was delayed due to some technical issues, but hopefully, the wait is worth it. The podcast is available now.

After President Trump’s claims in his State of the Union address regarding human trafficking, this month’s episode should prove especially timely. Former sex worker Maggie Mayhem discusses the free speech implications of the controversial Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act/Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA/FOSTA) for online content and for the sex work industry. Mayhem also discusses how SESTA/FOSTA actually endangers sex workers by removing online tools used to screen clients.

Kids’ Right to Read Project Combats Censorship in Libraries

Over the past few months, the Kids’ Right to Read Project (KRRP), a program of the National Coalition Against Censorship that is supported by the American Booksellers Association, the Association of American Publishers, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), was called upon to defend books from censorship in public libraries and elsewhere.

Recently, administrators pulled the manga comic Assassination Classroom from the shelves of a middle-school library in Staten Island, New York, after a parent expressed concerns that the story promotes violence. The book remains out of the library pending review by a school-level evaluation committee. KRRP wrote to the school district superintendent and stressed, “We urge you to honor your constitutional and educational obligations to your students by returning Assassination Classroom to library shelves and to follow district procedures for the review of controversial materials. We believe that the parental objection to Assassination Classroom takes the book’s title and themes out of context and disregards the book’s value as a whole.”

CBLDF also recently wrote about attacks to three LGBTQ-themed children’s books in Wichita, KansasI Am Jazz, George, and Lily and Dunkin. In a letter to Andover Public Library Board of Directors President Linda Schiller, KRRP wrote: “As you consider the appeal, we ask you to consider your obligations and also note that restricting these books or removing them altogether would raise serious concerns about discrimination based on sexual orientation.” In a win for free expression, the Andover Public Library met on Wednesday, February 13, and accepted the library review committee’s recommendation to keep the books.

In November 2018, KRRP responded to reports that the Rockingham County School District in Eden, North Carolina, had banned the novel Beartown by Fredrik Backman after parents and religious leaders complained about explicit language in the book. 

In a letter to the superintendent of Rockingham County School District, KRRP wrote: “Our public educational system is based on the premise that a free and unfettered exchange of ideas is essential to both democracy and education. The First Amendment protects these principles, and the ability of teachers to choose supplementary materials, like Beartown, is integral to the creation of a vibrant and healthy learning environment.”

KRRP also recently wrote to legislators in Maine to express serious concerns about a proposed law that would require every “public school, private school, or institution of learning” to provide the following written notice to minors and their parents or legal guardians prior to disseminating sexually explicit material: “The material depicts or describes ultimate sexual acts, excretory functions, masturbation, or lewd exhibition of the genitals.”

KRRP strongly urged Maine lawmakers to refrain from adopting the bill. The group stressed that the law raises serious First Amendment concerns, as the regulation is likely to undermine the quality of education throughout Maine by stigmatizing canonical works of literature for the sole reason that they include sexual content. Furthermore, “The term ‘sexually explicit’ is vague, over-inclusive, and potentially prejudicial and thus likely to adversely affect the quality of education in Maine. It could be used to describe classic works of literature such as Romeo and Juliet, The Diary of Anne Frank, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Brave New World. This stigmatizing label relies on the emphasis of decontextualized passages that detract from students’ understanding and appreciation of a work as a whole. Once a book is declared ‘sexually explicit,’ students will lose sight of the book’s other themes.”

KRRP also noted that schools are legally prohibited from discriminating against the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.