Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Putting a leash on Big Tech

Religious Liberty | Activists are calling on the U.S. government to regulate major tech companies, but critics argue such intervention would silence free speech
by Bonnie Pritchett
Posted 1/02/19, 05:33 pm

Recent accusations of online bias, especially against conservative viewpoints, have triggered calls for U.S. government regulation of major tech companies. But while imposing such controls on Big Tech may appeal to the blocked and banished, critics argue that making the federal government the moderator of online discourse will likely do more to silence, not stimulate, conversations.

“Congress needs to resist the urge to act impulsively—our democracy is resilient,” wrote Peter Morici, an economist and professor at the University of Maryland Smith School of Business, in a recent column for Market Watch. “Americans are generally well educated, and we profit from hearing the worst nuts and thoughtful views contrary to our own.”

But some people argue that tech platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, and YouTube are an essential public service and should be regulated like a local electric utility. But, for now, these tech companies are private entities that are able to establish their own speech code policies. And Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act grants them immunity from liability for content posted on their platforms. With this freedom to market their product—curated speech—why don’t these tech companies let their platforms be free speech free-for-alls and be done with the accusations of bias?

“Social media companies have an incentive to keep as many people as possible using their platforms for as long as possible—that’s how they maximize their profits,” Lata Nott, executive director of the First Amendment Center at the Freedom Forum Institute, told me. “Sometimes the free flow of speech is good for their bottom line and sometimes it isn’t, and that impacts how these sites are managed.”

Free speech advocates wanting to keep federal regulators at bay suggest Big Tech could profit by establishing user verification to weed out bots and trolls and allowing users to transfer their social network to a new platform. Most significantly, they have urged companies to be more transparent about their decisions to ban users and content, and create an appeals process that includes human communication.

Facebook has resolved to implement some of these policies in the new year. In November, the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) and an international coalition of more than 100 civil society organizations sent an open letter to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, urging him to apply the “The Santa Clara Principles on Transparency and Accountability in Content Moderation.”

In December, the social media giant committed to adopting some of the recommendations, but Facebook administrators told EFF that disclosing the identity of who called for the removal of content does not provide “critical information to our users or civil society.” EEF representatives disagreed, noting, “Facebook has removed legitimate speech at the behest of governments seeking to suppress voices in marginalized communities. We want to know if speech is removed because of government requests, algorithms, or decisions by employees.”

iStock/artisteer iStock/artisteer

Bible club battles at Pennsylvania high school

A public school district in Pennsylvania has run afoul of religious liberty issues twice since the school year started.

In September, students in a Bible club at a high school in the Mechanicsburg Area School District created a flyer advertising their club meetings and submitted it to their principal for approval. Principal David Harris denied their request and told them they could not post the sign unless they removed a Biblical reference to Mark 16:15 from the bottom of the flyer. Attorneys from the Independence Law Center then contacted the district, and Harris eventually relented.

Then students from the club purchased 75 Bibles to give to their classmates, and, per school rules, they went to Harris for approval to distribute them between classes. Again, their principal denied their request and said they were not permitted to hand out Bibles during the school day. The Independence Law Center sent a letter on Monday asking the school to allow the distribution and alert teachers and administrators to the fact that the ban is a violation of the students’ rights.

Independence Law Center attorney Jeremy Samek told me that the case clearly falls under Supreme Court rulings declaring students don’t give up their rights when they enter school. He said banning students from distributing free Bibles to their fellow students during non-instructional time “is a clear violation of the students’ First Amendment free speech rights.” —Rachel Lynn Aldrich

Associated Press/Photo by David Goldman (file) Associated Press/Photo by David Goldman (file) A student participating in a Bible class in Georgia

Bible in the schools case reopened

A West Virginia mother can continue her lawsuit objecting to a school district’s Bible program, a U.S. circuit court decided on Dec. 17.

Elizabeth Deal claimed the Bible in the Schools program offered by Mercer County Schools caused “misery” for her and her daughter and functioned as an illegal Sunday school, prompting the Freedom from Religion Foundation to file a lawsuit on her behalf in January 2018. Deal’s case was dismissed when school ended last spring, but the FFRF requested an injunction to keep the classes from ever starting up again. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal last month, allowing Deal’s case to move forward.

Deal and another parent said the class, which had been taught in Mercer County Schools for 75 years, made them feel like outsiders in the community. The local school board administers the program, but it is funded by private donors. First Liberty Institute defended the school district, saying the class falls under court decisions that the Bible can be presented objectively for its “literary and historic qualities.”

The elective, optional class on the Bible is offered in 19 of the district’s elementary, intermediate, and middle schools, with a class for high school students added this year. —R.L.A.

No religion on the D.C. Metro

The Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., will have to find a new way to spread Christmas cheer after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit denied it a rehearing last month.

Every year, the archdiocese runs a Christmas advertising campaign that included ads placed with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. The “Find the Perfect Gift” campaign is designed to remind people of the true meaning of Christmas and to encourage generosity. But last year, the WMATA passed a rule banning any “issue-oriented” advertising, which included religious views and political messages. As implemented, the policy allows secular organizations to post advertisements for upcoming holiday events but restricts any advertising of events by churches and other religious organizations.

“Metro’s advertisement policy is a train wreck,” Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at Becket, wrote in an Amicus brief submitted to the court.

In July, the circuit court upheld a lower court’s ruling that WMATA was justified in excluding religious advertising. A rehearing was denied on Dec. 21. —R.L.A.

Bonnie Pritchett

Bonnie reports on First Amendment freedoms for WORLD Digital.

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  • PaulC
    Posted: Thu, 01/03/2019 11:37 pm

    I believe the Bible reference in the article about the Bible club in Pennsylvania is meant to read Mark 16:15 rather than 15:16.  Small point, typo. 

  • Web Editor
    Posted: Fri, 01/04/2019 10:22 am

    Thank you. We corrected the reference in the article. The club’s flyer had the numbers transposed.

  • VISTA48
    Posted: Fri, 01/04/2019 10:32 pm

    In regulating Big Tech, I'm not sure how worried to be about quelling free speech when Big Tech appears to be doing that already. A more worrisome issue might be how are they using (or abusing) the massive amounts of data they are collecting on us? It places a great deal of power in the hands of a small group of people who should not have that much power. And a government with that much individual information is especially dangerous.

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