Weigh the costs and benefits of free speech thoughtfully

Published 4:31 pm Tuesday, April 30, 2019


Guest columnist

On Easter, a series of coordinated bombings in Sri Lanka killed more than 350 people. The attacks took place at three churches and three hotels in three separate cities. Sri Lankan officials have stated that the attacks were carried out by a local radical Islamist group, with help from international militants, and that they were intended as retribution for attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in March.

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In the wake of this act of terrorism, the Sri Lankan government temporarily blocked citizens’ access to several major social media platforms, including Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube and Snapchat to stop the spread of false news reports. Government officials cited fears that misinformation about the attacks could incite further ethnic and religious violence.

Is this an example of a government taking a dramatic and necessary step to ensure the safety of its people? Or is it a misguided act of censorship on the part of a government that doesn’t have the best track record on press freedom in the first place?

As a free speech advocate, my first inclination is to say that shutting down ways for people to communicate with each other is never the right way to respond to a crisis and that the citizens of Sri Lanka are better off with more information, even if some of it is false, than they are with none at all (or to be more precise, only the information provided by state-sponsored media outlets). That’s a knee-jerk reaction in me. But then, I run an organization called the First Amendment Center, so that’s not all that surprising.

But reading arguments from people who support Sri Lanka’s decision has caused me to consider my initial response more carefully. Don’t get me wrong: I still think that the Sri Lankan government shouldn’t have blocked access to social media in the aftermath of the attacks. For one thing, social media is often an invaluable tool for people to get in touch with each other in the wake of a disaster. As The Washington Post pointed out, the platform WhatsApp is “a chat app that more than 1.5 billion people around the world use monthly to text or make voice or video calls. Shutting off access to a primary means of communication during an emergency situation may leave those searching for friends and loved ones particularly vulnerable.” And of course, there’s the overarching concern that cutting off access to information in the name of national security is a step away from democracy towards authoritarianism.

But I was also struck by a comparison that tech journalist Noam Cohen made when he likened social media to gun ownership — something inherently dangerous that needs comprehensive regulation. “To fail to rein in social networks because of appeals to ‘freedom’ would be like allowing vague words written 250 years ago to get in the way of controlling guns.” This does not seem to be a knee-jerk reaction on Cohen’s part. As he puts it, “I’ve come slowly and in fits and starts to this view. Until recently, I’ve preferred to focus on the bad actors who misuse social networks — not only the hate peddlers but the Silicon Valley CEOs who profit from the networks’ misuse…But by focusing on those individuals’ shortcomings, wasn’t I buying into the argument that there was a good way for these social networks to operate, even during a time of crisis or during divisive elections? …In essence, I was replicating the tired defense of unrestrained gun ownership — social networks don’t kill people, people kill people. In point of fact, guns magnify the violence of their users, as do social networks.”

I see Cohen’s point. When you strongly believe in a principle, there’s a tendency to downplay its true cost. Those who advocate for unrestrained gun ownership often argue that stricter gun control laws wouldn’t actually deter crime. But that avoids a much more uncomfortable question: if stricter gun control laws did reduce crime, would you still believe that the right to bear arms is worth the lives put at risk by it?

Those of us who advocate for free speech often argue that censoring hateful speech doesn’t get rid of those ideas or make us any safer. But what if it did? Do the benefits of free speech and unfettered communication outweigh their very real human cost?

My answer is still yes, but there’s nothing knee jerk about it.

Lata Nott is executive director of the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum Institute. Contact her via email at lnott@freedomforum.org, or follow her on Twitter at @LataNott.