Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Facebook’s First Amendment chokehold

First Amendment | The social media giant blocked two Christian ministry pages this month, offering only vague explanations about community standards violations
by Bonnie Pritchett
Posted 10/24/17, 01:35 pm

Facebook shut down two Christian ministry pages this month, without warning or explanation, renewing fears about the social media giant’s ability to control access to an important corner of today’s public square.

A Facebook media representative said due to privacy issues she could not discuss details about the company’s actions against The Tree of Life Outreach and Sheologians. The representative also refused to speak on the record about company protocol for denying administrative access and what constitutes a violation of Facebook’s community standards.

On Oct. 3, Facebook blocked administrative access to all Pastor Ron Cusano’s pages, including The Tree of Life Outreach page he uses to conduct Bible studies for house churches in Pakistan, India, and Africa. Facebook “kicked out” all Sheologians administrators from their personal accounts Oct. 13, preventing them from accessing their page, Sheologians founder Summer White told me. Facebook offered no explanation other than a notification saying the page’s content may have violated community standards.

Facebook forbids “hate speech,” which it defines as “attacks” against people based on characteristics including sexual orientation and gender identity. The company warns individuals or groups “dedicated to promoting hatred against these protected groups are not allowed a presence on Facebook.”

Both White and Cusano said they previously posted items dealing with Christian views of sexuality and gender but neither make those issues a major part of their commentary.

White and Cusano don’t accuse Facebook of outright censorship, but the abrupt and inexplicable punishments prompted suspicion—and frustration. White has regained access to her page, while Cusano continues to battle Facebook’s unresponsive management.

Sheologians uses Facebook to promote a weekly podcast and blogs about cultural and political headlines from a Biblical worldview, White said. With no guidance from Facebook other than a request she review its community standards and remove any offending material, White followed the prompts to regain administrative control. But she didn’t have to remove any material from the page, which only added to her confusion.

“A lot of people think everything I say is hate speech,” White said. “A lot of people think everything I say is good and lovely and spurs them on to love Christ. Ultimately, Facebook gets to decide if I have violated their standards.”

Cusano’s two-week social media banishment prevented him from communicating with his overseas Bible study groups.

“It’s like I didn’t exist,” Cusano told me from his home in Commack, N.Y., adding the company should provide a better process for restoring access to blocked pages. “It’s blowing my mind that they have that power.”

Online censorship happens on a much larger scale than most people realize, a trend alarming free speech advocates. Jeff Rosen, president of the National Constitution Center, predicted in 2013 the centralization of internet hosting sites and laments the control they now wield.

“This is a day when platforms like Google and Facebook have more power over who can speak and who can be heard than any king, or president, or Supreme Court justice,” Rosen said on a recent episode of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education podcast So to Speak. “And yet as private companies they’re not bound by the First Amendment.”

Associated Press/Photo by Dave Kolpack Associated Press/Photo by Dave Kolpack Tahnee and James Young

Rejected couple sues Catholic Charities

A couple suing Catholic Charities of North Dakota (CCND) for $6.5 million claims the ministry rejected them as prospective parents because they were living together and not married when they began their adoption application process. But attorneys for the adoption and foster care agency say the couples’ character, not their marital status, proved their undoing.

James and Tahnee Young of Fargo, N.D., met with a social worker in March, five months before their wedding. The couple, now married, said they wanted their prospective daughter, a teenager they selected from an online profile but never met, to take part in the wedding. They asked the agency to expedite their application. In the following weeks, the couple’s “rude and entitled” behavior prompted the assessment team to disqualify them as prospective parents, according to court documents.

Assuming their cohabitation had barred them from adopting and claiming no attorney would take their case, the Youngs drafted their own lawsuit against CCND and employees affiliated with the ministry and another adoption agency, Adults Adopting Special Kids (AASK).

“Catholic Charities had an obligation to ignore the church’s teachings and do what is in the best interest of the child by moving forward as soon as possible on the adoption with the plaintiffs,” the Youngs said in their complaint, Young v. Catholic Charities of North Dakota.

Catholic Charities does not place children with unmarried couples but AASK, the agency facilitating the Youngs’ application, has no such prohibition.

Defense attorneys asked the court to dismiss the “frivolous” lawsuit, citing its “complete absence of actual facts or law” and its numerous filing errors.

North Dakota is among a handful of states that provide legal cover for faith-based adoption and foster care agencies. Dismissing the Youngs’ lawsuit as an ill-conceived money grab would miss an opportunity to reiterate those protections in the face of crushing legal attacks from more formidable challengers. —B.P.

Facebook Facebook The Bladensburg Peace Cross

Putting the cross in context

For 90 years, the Bladensburg cross stood as a reminder to the residents of Prince George’s County, Md., of the 49 servicemen from the area who died fighting in World War I. But in the current culture wars, the public display of faith, regardless of its historical context, amounts to an “unconstitutional endorsement of Christianity,” according the American Humanists Association and the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Erected on private land and originally funded and maintained by The American Legion, the 40-foot-tall Peace Cross is now maintained by the Maryland–National Capital Park and Planning Commission. The American Humanists Association sued both groups in 2014, seeking to have cross removed. A district court ruled in 2015 the display did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. But the 4th U.S. Circuit Court overturned that decision Oct. 18, ruling “the purported war memorial breaches the ‘wall of separation of Church and State.’”

The American Legion and the commission are considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. —B.P.

A costly mistake

Maajid Nawaz, a British-born Pakistani and self-described secular liberal Muslim, won a defamation lawsuit in the United Kingdom against an intelligence risk assessment corporation for placing him on its terrorism watch list. He is now turning his attention westward to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which has labeled him an anti-Muslim extremist.

The disparate characterizations are “peculiar,” Nawaz said during a live Facebook event last week, during which he discussed his defamation lawsuit against Thomson Reuters World Check database and his determination to sue the SPLC. World Check in April 2016 apologized for its “error” and removed his name from the list. Last week, the company agreed to pay “significant damages,” Nawaz said.

The SPLC has shown no such contrition, refusing to revoke its “hate group” label for his work as director of Quilliam, a London-based organization dedicated to countering the influence of Islamic extremism. Nawaz is crowdfunding his effort to sue the organization. The SPLC faces another defamation lawsuit brought by D. James Kennedy Ministries over its designation as a “hate group” because of its Biblical stance on sexuality. —B.P.

Bonnie Pritchett

Bonnie reports on First Amendment freedoms for WORLD Digital.

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  • RC
    Posted: Wed, 10/25/2017 01:56 pm

    Putting the Cross in Context - How has a private letter guaranteeing the Danbury Baptist that the state will not interfere with their religious rights, by Thomas Jefferson, become so twisted to have anything to with a monument to fallen soldiers of WW1?

    The first amendment has to do with not allowing congress to establish churches.  Exactly what church was established by congress with this monument?  It is unfortunate that the atheist have so twisted the thinking of people to swallow their lies.