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In Defense of Censorship

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I was intrigued by the headline I saw in an evangelical magazine: “Google, iTunes, Facebook All Censor Christian Views.”

The article turned out to be about the recent release at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., of a report by the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) on censorship by “new media” communications platforms.

The report is called True Liberty in a New Media Age: An Examination of the Threat of Anti-Christian Censorship and Other Viewpoint Discrimination on New Media Platforms. It was prepared after an 18-month analysis by The John Milton Project for Religious Free Speech, a project of the NRB under the direction of Sr. Vice President and General Counsel Craig L. Parshall.

The 47-page report contains a foreword by Frank Wright, president and CEO of the NRB, an executive summary by Craig Parshall, an introduction, five chapters, and eight brief appendices reproducing the pertinent content guidelines of the “new media” platforms under investigation.

According to the executive summary,

The policies and practices of several major Internet-interactive “new media” communications platforms and service providers were examined and evaluated in order to determine the risk of those entities committing anti-Christian viewpoint censorship. The companies reviewed were: Apple and its iTunes App Store; Facebook; MySpace; Google; Twitter; and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon. Our conclusion is that Christian ideas and other religious content face a clear and present danger of censorship on web-based communication platforms.

The report maintains that anti-Christian censorship has already been practiced by Apple, Google, Facebook, and Comcast. The claim is made about Apple that “of the 425,000 apps available on Apple’s iPhone, the only ones censored by Apple for expressing otherwise lawful viewpoints have been apps with Christian content.” Google is criticized for denying certain ads and self-censoring certain words on the China-based version of its search engine that the Chinese government didn’t like. Facebook isn’t specifically charged with any anti-Christian censorship, but it is faulted for removing “anti-gay” content. Comcast supposedly blocked the downloading of the Bible but “it is unknown whether Comcast’s suspected blockage of these Bible downloads was viewpoint targeted or was simply a response to a large download that threatened traffic.”

The current written polices of the “new media” are condemned for being vague and prohibiting content that is “hate speech,” controversial, inflammatory, inappropriate, any-gay, or misleading. Only Twitter is praised for policies that would “pass First Amendment muster if they are analyzed according to free speech principles articulated by the Supreme Court.” All of the other companies studied “have written policies in place that violate fundamental rules of free expression, as applied to religious free speech.”

The report urges Apple, Facebook, MySpace, Google, Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon to do three things: modify their policies, renounce past censorship practices, and “affirm an intent to abide by a healthy view of the free speech rights of their users and customers.”

If that doesn’t work, then the report suggests three courses of action: legislation, regulation, and litigation.

Now, whether Apple, Google, and the other “new media” platforms singled out by the report have practiced, are practicing, or might practice anti-Christian censorship is irrelevant to the real issue. True, if any of those take place, it is understandable that Christians would object. Just as it is understandable that a Buddhist would not be happy with anti-Buddhist censorship, a Republican would object to anti-Republican censorship, and a Black would not be pleased with anti-Black censorship. But, even as a Christian myself, it is my contention that censorship by “new media” platforms not only doesn’t pose a threat to free speech, it has nothing to do with the First Amendment and freedom of speech.

It is actually disingenuous to bring up the First Amendment, as is done throughout the report, because, as the report even acknowledges, “The First Amendment, like the other provisions of our Bill of Rights, does not reach private actions but only the actions of ‘state actors.’” The First Amendment reads,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It is the government that is prohibited from abridging the freedom of speech, not any individual or private business. Historically, it is governments that have always been the enemies of free speech. It is governments that have sought to censor speech. It is governments around the world right now — including the U.S. government — that seek to censor the speech of their citizens.

Individuals and organizations censor speech everyday, and it is perfectly natural, reasonable, and accepted when they do so.

Christian churches censor anti-Christian viewpoints. Jewish synagogues censor anti-Jewish viewpoints. Muslim mosques censor anti-Muslim viewpoints. Atheist societies censor pro-God viewpoints. AA meetings censor calls to meet for drinks afterwards. Weight Watchers gatherings censor invitations to buffets. Pro-life groups censor pro-choice opinions. Tea Party get-togethers censor big-government rhetoric. A conservative conference censors the promotion of national health care in its lectures.

We all censor the speech of our children and visitors to our homes. And it has nothing to do with whether the censored speech is hateful, controversial, inflammatory, inappropriate, vulgar, or profane. A home of partisan Democrats might censor any visitor’s praise of George W. Bush. Likewise, red-state conservatives might censor admiring opinions of President Obama expressed by visitors to their homes.

Even the NRB practices censorship. Does everyone have the freedom of speech to attend a board meeting of the NRB and express his views? Does anyone have the freedom of speech to utter obscenities in the lobby of the NRB headquarters?

If Apple prefers not to make available Christian apps, then Christians have several options. They can complain to Apple, boycott Apple, or start their own company to compete with Apple. If they don’t like the terms of service of Facebook, MySpace, Google, Comcast, AT&T, or Verizon, then they can do likewise. They can do anything that’s peaceful, which rules out legislation, regulation, and litigation.

Being able to censor what is said on one’s property is a mark of a free and ordered society; not to be allowed to censor what is said on one’s property is a mark of an authoritarian and lawless society.

The real issue is property. As economist George Reisman recently explained in writing about the Occupy Wall Street movement,

A major lesson to be learned from the occupation is that hardly anyone nowadays understands the meaning of freedom of speech. Contrary to the prevailing view, freedom of speech is not the ability to say anything, anywhere, at any time. Actual freedom of speech is consistent withrespect for property rights. It presupposes that the speaker has the consent of the owners of any property he uses in speaking, such as the land, sound system, or lecture hall or radio or television studio that he uses.

By the logic of the prevailing view of freedom of speech, protesters in the future will be able to storm into lecture halls and/or seize radio and television stations in order to deliver their message and then claim that their freedom of speech is violated when the police come to eject them, even though the police in such cases would in fact be acting precisely in order to uphold the freedom of speech.

The prevailing view is totally incorrect. Actual freedom of speech, based on respect for property owners’ rights to use their own property as they see fit, is the guarantor of rational communication.

As much as Christians may dislike what they see as anti-Christian censorship practiced by “new media” communications platforms, as much as they may dislike the “liberal bias” of social media companies, as much as they may dislike the “overbroad and vague” policies of Apple, as much as they may dislike the acceptable-use policies of Internet service providers, as much as they may dislike Google’s advertising guidelines, and as much as they may dislike content restrictions imposed by MySpace, there is no “free speech obligation” that private entities must adhere to. In a free society, businesses of any type and companies large and small are free to cater to or not to cater to any group or cause they choose for any reason. That includes organizations such as the NRB, which would cry foul if it were not free to censor what was said on its property, posted on its website, or spoken at its meetings.

It doesn’t matter whether “new media” platforms are censoring what is “right” and the NRB is censoring what is “wrong.” Censorship, except when it is undertaken by government, is part and parcel of a free society.

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