October 17, 2019 2:43PM

Mark Zuckerberg at Georgetown

Mark Zuckerberg gave an important speech today at Georgetown University about free expression and Facebook. I think the speech is important for four reasons.

Recently Zuckerberg wrote that free expression was a “paramount” value for Facebook. Paramount means “more important than anything else; supreme.” This speech articulates his understanding of “paramount” for Facebook. Free speech is immensely valuable and just not another value to be traded off against many other values. The limits to speech on Facebook are themselves limited.

Second, Facebook is about to launch an independent Oversight Board to consider appeals to its content moderation. The main job of the Board is to independently enforce Facebook’s values. Inevitably the Board will interpret and apply Facebook’s Community Standards. But difficult cases will arise. The Board will need some insight into Facebook’s values to properly interpret the standards. Here we have the Founder and CEO of Facebook articulating those values especially the status of free expression online. This speech will supplement the Community Standards in guiding the work of the Board. And the speech says: free expression is our paramount value.

Third, Zuckerberg goes beyond Facebook and pushes back against the current criticisms of free speech. He notes “we’re seeing people try to define more speech as dangerous because it may lead to political outcomes they see as unacceptable.” Zuckerberg counters that this view “is more dangerous to democracy over the long term than almost any speech.” And several times he says, “we must continue to stand for free expression.” Just words you say? Remember also that this part of the speech engaging the critics of free speech was optional for Zuckerberg. He could have just talked about his company and its obligations. He made the choice to reply to those critics and to endorse the fundamentals of freedom of expression.

Fourth, Zuckerberg is obviously a tech business leader. Content moderation takes place throughout social media and related platforms. We can hope this endorsement of free speech online will stiffen some spines during what has been and may be a difficult time.

The speech was not perfect. He provided no final answers on hate speech. That particular issue merits our attention and “more speech.” It is not an easy question for Facebook or any private organization.

By all rights, Zuckerberg’s speech should have been very different. Facebook and social media are under political attack, said to be a threat to democracy. And many of the critics do indeed assume that our traditional commitment to free speech should no longer hold in the new digital age. The easiest way forward would have been placating those critics. Zuckerberg has chosen a harder path here, and I can only conclude he has done so because he actually believes in free expression, not just as one value among many but as the most important one for his business and for the nation.

It’s good to have this statement from one of our leading businessmen. The next part is harder: Zuckerberg’s recognition of the paramount status of speech must be realized by his company and his new Oversight Board. But this speech marks a good start down that challenging path.