The author is senior vice
president and general counsel of the National Religious Broadcasters.
years ago, I took a closer look at the way in which Web-based “new media
platforms” were changing — faster than the speed of sound it seemed — the
entire landscape of broadcasting, as well as communications.
is nothing new about the new media revolution, of course. But it was the free
speech implications of this communications tsunami that both intrigued and
general counsel for NRB, an association that represents radio and television
stations and networks, webcasters and publishers (among others) who carry
distinctly Christian content, I spend every day dealing with the statutory and
regulatory policies and constitutional issues that affect traditional broadcast
platforms. Like others who also come from the legal corner of the
communications world, I also try to keep abreast of the changing tides of
electronic media in order to see how those new currents might affect freedom of
speech — and more particularly from NRB’s perspective, religious free speech.
I reviewed the meteoric rise and the monolithic market dominance of a handful
of new media tech companies, I thought I would give them a closer look. I am
glad I did.
the next 18 months I directed an effort through our Office of General Counsel,
aided by several key NRB legal partners, to evaluate the actual corporate
practices as well as the written terms
of use policies of eight large new media corporations.
names are familiar ones: Apple (specifically the iTunes App Store), Facebook, Google,
MySpace and Twitter, together with Internet service providers AT&T, Comcast
we found was shocking. The results of our analysis have been released in our
white paper, “True Liberty in a New Media Age,” available at our website,
also resulted was the creation of our permanent, ongoing freedom of speech
campaign, the John Milton Project for Religious Free Speech. In addition to
being a famous epic English poet of Christian-themed works in the 17th century
(“Paradise Lost”), Milton was an astute observer of public policy. When a small
cadre of printers looked ready to collaborate with the government’s idea of
granting them a license to print in exchange for their agreement to censor
unpopular ideas, Milton cried foul.
argument for freedom of speech and for an open marketplace of ideas where good
ideas would be allowed to rise and bad ones would inevitably fall, became a
classic. Our founders relied on Milton’s theory more than any other source
during the free speech debates over the First Amendment.
our review of the current new media situation, we concluded that Twitter was
the only one of those eight large
corporations that deserved a passing grade. Its policies not only demonstrate a
respect for free speech, but even further, it has, up to now at least, never
practiced viewpoint censorship.
other seven companies, by contrast, forbid anything on their platforms that
they deem to constitute “hate speech” — a dangerously undefined phrase that,
more often than not, is used by ideologues to suppress politically incorrect
the problems don’t end there. Using vague, ambiguous terminology, these
companies ban whole categories of speech — any content that is “offensive,” or
“inflammatory,” or which promotes a “politically religious agenda,” or that dares
to say anything critical about other religions, or which takes on controversial
issues like abortion or same-sex marriage.
of them promise to censor any form of speech on their platforms that their users
might find objectionable — regardless of whether those reasons have any merit.
new media giants have declared that they possess both the right and the will to
use standard-less, arbitrary power to shut down ideas they simply do not like.
Considering how a handful of these giant technology companies rule entire
fields of Web-based communications, the threat to freedom of discourse is
this were simply a problem with the written policies of new media platforms, the civil
liberty risk would be less. But policies — like ideas — have consequences.
and Apple’s iTunes App Store have already committed overt censorship of
religious viewpoints. In December 2010 and again in March 2011, Apple removed
two apps — after they were developed, vetted, approved and were placed in the
iTunes App Store — simply because gay rights groups complained about their
orthodox Christian ideas.
Apple stripped the Manhattan Declaration app off its iTunes App Store because
of its view that marriage should be defined as one-man and one-woman. Next,
Apple blocked the Exodus International App because that Christian ministry had
the audacity to minister to persons in a gay lifestyle who wanted to get out — a
concept that has apparently been declared an intellectual crime against
humanity by the thought police. Gay online organizers succeeded in shaming
Apple into remove those apps simply because they didn’t like the mainstream evangelical
perspective on gay issues. Of the 425,000 apps currently on Apple’s iTunes
store, the only otherwise lawful content that as been censored has been religious
has also exhibited a predisposition against religious content.
only did they practice censorship of religious viewpoints while they maintained
their China platform, but they also attempted to block a Christian, pro-life ad
on their search engine. It was only after a lawsuit in England ensued that they
reluctantly retreated. Earlier this year they established new guidelines for
their fabulous Web tool, “Google for Non-Profits.” It had been available to all
non-profits at a little or no cost. In March, however, Google announced that churches
and other faith groups would be excluded from their program — only secular non-profits need
which has partnered with gay rights groups and which has promised to stamp out homophobia on its social
networking site, is poised to join this “ideas too dicey to debate” club.
A better idea
past practices and current policies of the giant new media platforms are
tremendously significant for every broadcaster.
we recently convened a panel discussion at the National Press Club in
Washington to discuss these trends and the content of our report, former FCC
Commissioner Harold Furchtgott Roth, now founder/director of the Center for
Economics of the Internet of the Hudson Institute, one of our panelists, called
our findings “deeply troubling.”
others who joined me in our roundtable — Colby May, senior counsel and director
(Washington office) of the American Center for Law and Justice; Suzanne Caruso,
associate dean for external affairs, Liberty University School of Law; and
Brian Walsh, executive director of the American Religious Freedom Program of
the Ethics and Public Policy Institute — were equally appalled.
not looking for some new federal rule or a market-entangling lawsuit. The exact
legal status of the Internet, in terms of the free speech obligations of new
media companies that use it, profit from it and dominate it, is still a frontier
area of law.
we are really after is a voluntary recognition from these Web-based giants of
their civil liberty responsibilities.
is the standard that ought to prevail? Why not use the current free speech
values that have been articulated by the Supreme Court: Other than that short
list of narrow, well-defined categories of speech that can be deemed illegal for
content reasons (child pornography, incitement to violence, criminal obscenity,
“fighting words” etc.), everything else (something we call “otherwise lawful
expression”) should be permitted.
will try to initiate a dialogue with these companies. We will, of course, be
thanking Twitter for doing it the right way. We will also be asking the hard
questions of the other Web companies and ISPs. They may be tech giants, but
they have to be held accountable to the American citizens they seek to serve
and from whom they have generously profited.
speech is too important a value to be stomped underfoot by the fast-step march
of companies that prize tech innovation and market dominance over liberty. We
wouldn’t tolerate our local telephone company refusing to give us phone service
because of our political views — neither should we permit these new media
platforms to block our otherwise lawful religious ideas because they are
unpopular with certain vocal, activist groups.
Witherspoon, a signer of the America’s Declaration of Independence and a
Scottish preacher, was the sixth president of what would later be called
Princeton University. He mentored a host of men who would later become our
nation’s earliest presidents, members of Congress and Supreme Court justices.
once remarked that religious freedom is so intertwined with civil liberty that
to do harm to the one invariably injures the other. Regardless of anyone’s personal
worldview, or religious beliefs — or lack of them — freedom of speech over new
media platforms is too important to leave solely to the whims of tech
innovators. If that happens, the next ideas that are censored from these Web-based
venues could be your own.
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