“F*ck you and your censorship.”
Such was the delightful Facebook message I got to answer two weeks ago. How did a nice girl like me end up on the receiving end of such an unpleasant note?
In addition to penning a weekly column for Rare, I have a handful of part-time writing, editing, and social media management gigs to keep me busy. Part of my responsibilities entail managing the Facebook page for Young Americans for Liberty (YAL)—a fantastic organization you should check out.
Most of the time that just means posting news articles, memes and reports about what YAL activists are doing on their college campuses, but about once a week I check the private messages.
Usually it’s nice stuff: “I want to join a YAL chapter.” “I love what you’re posting this week.” “Let’s be internet friends.”
Yet there’s always a handful of people who have a bone to pick (“You’re stupid” is a perennial favorite), and the sender of this censorship message was certainly one of them.
As you can imagine from his wording, this guy has a pretty filthy vocabulary. And when he used it to comment on the YAL Facebook page, our automatic profanity filter—which we keep on a low setting just to keep the comments section relatively civil—hid his comments.
Censorship! Or is it?
Here’s the thing: Technically, you could say having a profanity filter on your private Facebook page is censorship. It doesn’t limit what ideas commenters can express, though, yes, it does limit the language they can use.
But in the age of the NSA monitoring our most personal communications, is that the type of “censorship” we’re worried about?
When Congress is trying to pass bills like SOPA and CISPA, which would give the government massive internet censorship abilities, is “censorship” of rude language on a private Facebook page a big concern?
When we have people seriously suggesting that government should decide what the media gets to print, do private limitations on speech even count as censorship?
I don’t think so.
There’s an important difference between government censorship and private property rights. The NSA, SOPA, CISPA, and government controlling the press is censorship. Not letting people say whatever they want on your Facebook page, website, or land is private property rights.
The First Amendment protects us from the government censoring our speech; it has absolutely nothing to say about limiting speech on private property. Your house, your Facebook, your whatever—your rules.
The government forcing you to stop expressing your opinion is censorship. You deciding what you want people saying on your private property is not censorship.
And while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about something else which isn’t censorship: protests.
This issue came up this spring after multiple universities had their commencement speakers resign recently in the wake of student protests. The most famous incident of this was probably when former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice resigned her invitation to speak at Rutgers University after students protested her connection to the war in Iraq.
Predictably, much handwringing resulted over how “Immature” and “arrogant” these “self-righteous student nincompoops” would have to be to dare protest such distinguished speakers as Rice. These protests, it was argued, are a suppression of academic freedom—a display of intellectual intolerance.
“Given your generation’s penchant for shutting down speakers with whom you disagree,” wrote one somewhat snide commentator, “I am assuming that you have no intention of playing any serious adult role in mediating [the world’s] conflicts.”
A “true ‘marketplace of ideas’ must be open to hearing from people from different walks of life, professions, experiences and philosophical and political points of view,” said Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Caving to student protests of commencement speakers, Lukianoff suggested, is censorship.
While I usually wholeheartedly respect Lukianoff’s (and FIRE’s) work to protect free speech, here I think he—and the other commentators who condemned commencement protests—are wrong.
Protests are not censorship. They are not “shutting down speakers.” And they are not immature, arrogant, or self-righteous. (Ok, they can be self-righteous, but so can any activity involving a crowd.)
On the contrary, the only people limiting the marketplace of ideas here are the speakers who withdraw because they are unwilling to speak without unchallenged applause. And in that case? Good riddance.
If your ideas can’t stand up to some college protests, maybe they weren’t very good ideas to begin with. As Michael Dougherty commented on Twitter recently, “If the argument burns, maybe you are the straw man.”
One protestor from Smith College expressed the situation well:
I do not agree with a base assumption that the Smith community’s dissent stifled [the speaker’s] speech. It did not. She didn’t want to see or hear our disagreement, so she decided not to join the party. Her choice.
If he happens to read this, I’d imagine that the author of the profane message I received will probably object to my “censoring” his language by adding an asterisk. But no matter how much he objects, the point still stands: Censorship is something the government does. The rest is just protests and property rights—and there’s nothing objectionable about that.