New Episode of “Counterspeak” Features Activist Maggie Mayhem

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A new episode of Counterspeak, the monthly podcast of the American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE), is now available for download on BookWebSpotify, and iTunes. This installment features an interview with Maggie Mayhem, a queer former sex worker, former board member of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, full-spectrum doula and reproductive justice advocate, and founder of HarmRedux, a program to distribute clean crack pipes to reduce Hepatitis C. Mayhem joined ABFE to talk about how well-intentioned laws can impact free speech rights.

Counterspeak, which launched in December, is co-hosted by American Booksellers Association Content Development Director Sydney Jarrard; Director of ABFE, Advocacy, and Public Policy Dave Grogan; and Advocacy and Public Policy Coordinator Maria Peroni. The podcast addresses issues pertaining to free expression and the First Amendment.

In this episode, Mayhem and Jarrard discuss the implications of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act/Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA/FOSTA) for online content and for the sex work industry. Mayhem discusses how FOSTA endangers sex workers by removing online tools used to screen clients. As she explains, “It’s much safer to answer e-mail than to stick your head in a car window.” Mayhem argues that enforcement of laws like SESTA/FOSTA is often inconsistent with the “best intentions” of supporters of the legislation — in this case, to stop human trafficking.

Sex workers and free speech groups alike opposed SESTA/FOSTA, which was signed into law in April 2018. The National Coalition Against Censorship wrote, “The bill centers on Internet communications and applies overly broad restrictions that will chill protected free speech online…This bill will be far more effective in censorship than in stopping a single case of sex trafficking.”

The Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) argued that the law could have a chilling effect on all speech, as reported in Bookselling This Week. Treating websites as publishers of information means that “risk-averse platforms will likely block too much content to avoid criminal liability and civil claims. This will inhibit everyone’s ability to speak freely and to access information.” CDT also stressed that if YouTube or Craigslist were responsible for every one of its users’ posts, “the companies would flounder under the sheer volume of content to review.”

Indeed, after the Senate passed FOSTA, a number of websites, including Craigslist, began shutting down sections that might be construed as sex-related.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an organization that defends civil liberties online, explained why liability for third-party content under FOSTA could result in censorship: “Facing the risk of ruinous litigation, online platforms will have little choice but to become much more restrictive in what sorts of discussion — and what sorts of users — they allow, censoring innocent people in the process. What forms that erasure takes will vary from platform to platform. For some, it will mean increasingly restrictive terms of service — banning sexual content, for example, or advertisements for legal escort services. For others, it will mean over-reliance on automated filters to delete borderline posts. No matter what methods platforms use to mitigate their risk, one thing is certain: when platforms choose to err on the side of censorship, marginalized voices are censored disproportionately. The Internet will become a less inclusive place, something that hurts all of us.”

During the episode, Mayhem also shared her views and experiences regarding decriminalization versus legalization of sex work, how stigma has impacted her online activism and can result in the censorship of sex workers or women thought to be associated with sex work, and how social media platforms should handle instances of abuse.

Each month, Counterspeak will feature interviews with experts on the First Amendment and free speech, as well as discussions on relevant current events. A new episode will be available on the first Wednesday of every month on BookWebSpotify, and iTunes. For more information, check out Counterspeak’short introductory episode.