jasonbwatson

January 29, 2013

Free Speech

I was amused as I read through the January 12 issue of WORLD Magazine to find that two of the magazine’s articles–located just three pages apart–were completely contradictory. I was further amused to discover that I thought both articles were wrong. Here’s the situation…

On page 59, Daniel James Devine wrote a piece entitled, “Speech impediments.” In it, he argued that Facebook, YouTube and Apple are guilty of online censorship and that everyone (but Christians in particular) should be concerned about the decisions being made by these companies. He cites examples such as Facebook’s deletion of a photo showing “an unveiled Arab woman in a sleeveless top, holding, in a call for liberation, a passport photo of herself wearing the hijab“, and Facebook’s temporary censorship of Mike Huckabee’s “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” held last year in support of Dan Cathy. According to Devine, Facebook apologized for both instances and “claimed the content had been removed by mistake.” Devine also cites Apple’s permanent removal of applications from Exodus International and Manhattan Declaration on its AppStore, and YouTube’s removal of Pastor Ryan Faust’s video warning against gay marriage, since YouTube considered the video to be hate speech.

Three pages later Mark Bergin wrote a piece entitled “Switch hitters” in which he took to task sports journalists for straying from reporting and commenting on sports to commenting on social issues and politics. He cited Bob Costas’ arguments for tighter gun control laws during a halftime show on Sunday Night Football following the murder/suicide by Kansas City Chiefs’ linebacker Jovan Belcher and sportswriter Jason Whitlock’s comments on the same incident. Bergin also mentioned ESPN’s reprimand of golf analyst Paul Azinger criticizing President Barack Obama for playing too much golf while devoting so little attention to job creation. Bergin cited ESPN’s policy that its reporters and personalities are to “avoid being publicly identified with various sides of political issues.” Bergin concludes the column by pointing out that sports journalists have a responsibility to provide “relief from greater concerns” and that “when the sports pages carry reports of murder and suicide, all notions of fantasy and escape are lost….” In other words, Bergin wants sports journalists to stick to talking sports and avoid discussing their opinions on anything else.

So the irony comes from Devine lamenting censorship from social media companies while Bergin is asking for censorship of sports journalists. Here’s why both are wrong…

First, the social media platforms that Devine is concerned about are the creations of companies that have chosen to provide a service. But Apple, Google (which owns YouTube) and Facebook are not public utilities (which, by the way, Devine does acknowledge). His suggestion that “users should be free to publish whatever they choose, like newspaper editors” is foolish and naive. Newspapers are protected against censorship from the government, but not from their own editors or owners. A newspaper editor can exclude anything he or she wants from a newspaper. Who in the world would suggest that newspapers should print everything that is submitted to them, whether by reporters or by the public? Devine says that “platform providers…should serve all customers even if they disagree with the content provided.” That’s just silly. WORLD has a web site, and it is free for anyone to access. But I guarantee you it would not allow or leave up comments that it deemed inappropriate or offensive. It’s not as if Google, Apple and Facebook are the only ways in the world for people to get out their messages. If they choose to censor content, so what? Let them. If it troubles you, find another outlet to make your voice heard. if it troubles you enough, stop using their services. If it troubles you to the point that you just cannot sleep at night, and you have the wherewithal to do so, start your own platform and let people post, publish and share anything they want without guidelines or censorship of any kind.

Devine quotes Craig Parshall, the director of the John Milton Project for Free Speech at National Religious Broadcasters, expressing concern that these companies, because of company policies, can remove user-generated content they find offensive, “even if it would otherwise be lawful.” Of course they can; they created and/or own the platform, so they can create any policies they want. We, the users, volunteer to abide by them when we choose to use the services they provide. The fact that the speech may “otherwise be lawful” does not mean any company must allow it to be disseminated through its service(s). I am sure Parshall would not suggest that Christian radio stations should be required to air radio content its owners found offensive, so why should Facebook or YouTube be required to leave up content their owners find offensive? Our country is full of places that have established their own censorship rules, and many of them are religious–schools, camps, colleges, etc. There are some things students at the school where I serve cannot say or where or advertise without having consequences–possibly as severe as expulsion–even if their speech would “otherwise be lawful.”

Mr. Bergin, on the other hand, is suggesting that sports journalists should be prevented from sharing opinions that are not within the narrow parameters of “sports journalism.” First of all, if the on-air commentators of sporting events stuck to talking solely about the games being broadcast, there would be a lot more silence during the games. That would probably not be a bad thing, actually, but my point is that they stray often from “the subject at hand.” Should they be censored for doing so only when what the talk about is potentially offensive to someone? Second, sports journalists work for companies or at least have to sell their work to companies; shouldn’t the companies have the say in whether or not to censor them? If I don’t like what Bob Costs or Jason Whitlock or Paul Azinger has to say, I do not have to listen to read them. But am I really sure I want to suggest that they should not be allowed to say those things?

As I said, it was incredibly ironic to find these two articles just pages apart, since one argues that companies providing public platforms should not censor the content contributed by the public, while the other suggests that companies providing platforms for information to be disseminated to the public should censor the opinions being disseminated. And, as I said at the outset, I think Messrs. Devine and Bergin are both wrong. I guarantee you I want the right to censor or regulate that which I have created and/or own. Why? Because that in and of itself is free speech!

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