Opinion: Some conservatives need a First Amendment refresher - PressFrom - US
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OpinionSome conservatives need a First Amendment refresher

23:50  21 may  2019
23:50  21 may  2019 Source:   washingtonexaminer.com

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Some conservatives need a First Amendment refresher© Provided by MediaDC: Washington Newspaper Publishing Company, Inc. Senator Ted Cruz

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

In the past two years, a phenomenon called “Techlash” has changed societal attitudes about platforms such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter that have largely enjoyed favorable images until recently. As perception has shifted, the public outcry for social media regulation has increasingly grown.

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Surprisingly, conservatives have been among the loudest in that chorus.

Many Republicans claim conservative content is being targeted and silenced by big tech companies. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has championed this line of attack, recently holding a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing called “Stifling Free Speech: Technological Censorship and the Public Discourse.” Under his legally incorrect interpretation, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act requires platforms to be “neutral” to enjoy the protection from liability.

Maybe Cruz skipped or slept through that class when he was at Harvard Law, but there is no requirement for content on a platform to be neutral to trigger the First Amendment protections. If conservatives believe that a private actor should be neutral to be protected by the First Amendment, they are definitely on the wrong side of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.

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That Supreme Court case dealt with the question of whether a baker can decline to bake a cake for a gay wedding because of the baker's personal religious beliefs. In practice, the implication of Cruz’s idea, that platforms must be neutral to enjoy First Amendment protection, would make websites tailored for specific populations cease to exist. Projects such as creating a version of Facebook for conservatives (this proposal was backed by Donald Trump, Jr.) would be illegal. Since Cruz wants every platform to be neutral, an American won’t be able to have a website to discuss issues that matter to them (abortion, gun control) without people who oppose their views participating.

Requiring “neutrality” by platforms is, in effect, a rejiggered version of the long-dead “Fairness Doctrine,” but for the internet. That policy required broadcasters to present controversial issues in a balanced way, giving equal time to both sides. Generations of conservatives opposed this policy and, after it passed a Democrat-controlled Congress, President Ronald Reagan vetoed it.

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To ensure that the internet exists as a space in which speech can thrive, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was written to protect platforms from liability for the content of third parties. Today, it serves as the cornerstone of free speech online.

Contemporary attempts by the government to force platforms into creating a “neutral public forum” present a threat to the internet as it is known today for three reasons:

First, in response to the vague standards associated with content neutrality likely to follow from the Cruz approach, platforms will be incentivized to over-censor to avoid liability. In the process, conservatives crying of censorship now will be shocked by the restraints of such a brave new world.

Second, smaller businesses will not have the resources to comply and respond to the avalanche of litigation associated with such a requirement. Ironically, for politicians worried about “bias” from widely used platforms; making them liable would only strengthen their dominance. Lawyer squads and resources available to the Facebooks and Googles of the world will handle any litigation going their way, but smaller websites that facilitate discussion and are trying to break into the industry won’t stand a chance.

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Third, countries that are in the process of building democratic institutions, or those that have autocratic regimes, will be emboldened to suppress opposing views online, following the U.S. lead under the auspices of “neutrality.” This phenomenon will be particularly problematic in nations where democratic institutions aren’t strong enough to resist the allure of authoritarianism.

Arguing about the employee make-up of tech companies who wield tremendous power is fair game. Demanding more transparency, so the public knows how content moderation decisions are made, won’t harm free speech.

In contrast, trying to play referee on the internet would entirely harm free speech.

Ashkhen Kazaryan (@Ashkhen) is director of civil liberties at TechFreedom.

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