A functioning republic requires the free expression of thoughts and ideas. This is why the right to free speech and assembly are enumerated so clearly in our Constitution's Bill of Rights. Today, California Attorney General Becerra and 19 other state attorneys general called on Facebook to more “aggressively enforce” the platform’s policies against so-called hate speech and “hate organizations.”
As is clear to anyone, this is merely a call by agents of the state for Facebook to regulate content; something that Facebook would be unable to do if it were a government entity, because it would be unconstitutional. This naked attempt on the part of government to use online platforms to accomplish what it could not do itself is concerning for many reasons.
A.G. Becerra claims his goal is to prevent harassment and intimidation, to prevent discrimination against minority groups, and to stop unlawful activity. The truth, though, seems to diverge from this assertion. What Becerra and company are trying to do is deputize third parties to engage in “audits of hate content.”
But what is hateful content, and how is the line drawn between it and protected speech? How can we know what is hate, and what is simply repulsive? Given Becerra’s uncompromising support for massive abrogations of civil rights, such as gun control, it does not take a substantial leap to see that content regulation may include the regulation of things that have nothing to do with hate, but that which is simply deemed unfavorable by the ruling establishment.
As more of our interactions and expressions occur on private platforms like Facebook, tensions between the right of the hosting parties and of those expressing themselves grow. This instance of government’s self-insertion, and urging these platforms to more vigorously restrict speech, is among the most dangerous interactions of business and government to occur in our nation’s history.
The year is 2020, not 1984. If we as a society permit the government to bully private businesses into acting as lackeys of the state, to suppress speech, to ban individuals from freely engaging in ideas, no matter how controversial, we will fail as a modern republic. Thought regulation is something that occurs under dictatorial regimes like the People's Republic of China, not in modern, liberal societies. Not only does the Attorney Generals’ call for censorship fly in the face of liberal philosophy, it could only have a negative impact: driving controversial actors to engage in subversive activity in the darkness, fomenting resentment, and inspiring actual hate-driven incidents. As the old adage goes, sunshine is the best disinfectant.
If Attorney General Becerra is genuine and wants to reduce harassment and intimidation, he should focus on good-faith efforts to educate people in his own state. After all, these AGs were elected to a state position, not a dictatorial one. Facebook and other media platforms should disregard the Attorney Generals’ letter because nothing good can come from it. These companies already struggle to remove actual criminal content because of the volume of information that continually flows through the web. It would be a waste of their time and resources to serve as thought police, and acting as government lackeys to accomplish tasks the government is forbidden from pursuing rubs salt in the People’s already wounded rights.