Private companies are largely free to censor speech without implicating First Amendment protections. However, many of the reasons why government censorship is harmful are also applicable to private sector censorship. With the increasing role social media companies play in disseminating information, understanding the harms of private sector censorship is more important now than ever before.
Regardless of who is doing the censorship, attempts to silence speech often result in a net increase in the speech that was intended to be silenced. This is because censorship—whether from the government or private industry—often leads to increased interest due to the “forbidden fruit effect,” which holds that people demonstrate increased interest in things they are told they cannot have. For example, some believe evidence suggests that anti-Semitic speech codes may result in more anti-Semitic sentiment. A recent example of this phenomenon is that of alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, a relatively obscure figure until protests at the University of California, Berkeley blocked him from speaking. This censorship led to an unprecedented spike in interest about Yiannopoulos’s message.
Attempts to censor objectionable speech—whether by governments or private industry—may also result in a net increase in the objectionable speech by elevating the status of the speaker. Those who voice objectionable views often trade in the currency of martyrdom status. By validating this perceived martyrdom of those in groups that voice objectionable messages, censorship efforts provide a powerful tool to motivate existing members and can even function to enhance recruitment efforts.
The subjective nature of identifying objectionable speech to be censored often results in inconsistent censorship. A policy of banning “hate speech” is equally subjective because nearly anything can be labeled “hate speech.” Governments that censor “hate speech” provide an unfortunate example of this principle, as the practice quickly devolves into a tool for those in power to silence their opposition. Identifying objectionable speech to be censored is no less subjective when done by private industry.
Examples of inconsistent censorship are numerous. Facebook allowed the following post referring to “radicalized” Muslims: “Hunt them, identify them, and kill them.” But the post: “All white people are racist. Start from this reference point, or you’ve already failed,” was banned. Facebook training materials show images of a female driver, black children, and white men and ask which group is protected from attacks by the company’s hate speech algorithm. The correct answer is only white men. The Disney Corporation fired Gina Carano from The Mandalorian for comparing cancel culture to Nazi treatment of Jewish people. However, when fellow Mandalorian star Pedro Pascal tweeted comparisons of modern-day America and Trump supporters to Nazis, he was not fired. Amazon recently banned a bestselling book by Ryan T. Anderson that openly rebukes the concept of gender identity, despite Amazon selling it for three years. However, Amazon continues to sell Mein Kampf, The Anarchist Cookbook (which includes instructions on making bombs and LSD), and DVDs of The Birth of a Nation. Consistent with the previously discussed forbidden fruit effect, Anderson’s book became the third most purchased digital book at Barnesandnoble.com after being banned by Amazon.
Protecting free speech is not just a practice of avoiding the harms of censorship. Allowing unpopular speech also confers positive benefits to society. Allowing unpopular speech produces a populace with a more accurate understanding of the opposing beliefs of others. It also contributes to the ability of others to confront those who hold objectionable beliefs and provide evidence that may change their minds. Allowing objectionable speech also facilitates social trust by providing an awareness of what objectionable views exist, and how to rebut those claims, thus making them less susceptible to recruitment by extremist groups.
Regardless of whether the government or private industry is the entity engaged in censorship, the damages incurred from the practice—and the benefits foregone—are present either way. With the size of some private companies, such as Facebook and Amazon, surpassing that of some governments, the need for them to mirror governmental free speech protections is increasingly important.
By Michael Conklin
Michael Conklin is the Powell Endowed Professor of Business Law at Angelo State University. He has published in over fifty journals and serves as a reviewer for five journals. He is also an avid mountaineering enthusiast with successful summits of the 100 highest mountains in Colorado and the world’s highest volcano located in South America.