July 15, 2019 5:04PM

Misleading Project Veritas Accusations of Google “Bias” Could Prompt Bad Law

Tomorrow, the Senate’s Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on The Constitution will hold a hearing on Google’s alleged anti-conservative bias and “censorship.”  In a video released last month, James O’Keefe, a conservative activist, interviews an unnamed Google insider. The film, which has been widely shared by conservative outlets and cited by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and President Donald Trump, stitches a narrative of Orwellian, politically-motivated algorithmic bias out of contextless hidden camera footage, anodyne efforts to improve search results, and presumed links between unrelated products. Although the film’s claims are misleading and its findings unconvincing, they are taken seriously by lawmakers who risk using such claims to justify needless legislation and regulation. As such, they are worth engaging (the time stamps throughout this post refer to the Project Veritas video that can be viewed here).

Search algorithms use predefined processes to sift through the universe of available data to locate specific pieces of information. Simply put, they sort information in response to queries, surfacing whatever seems most relevant according to their preset rules. Algorithms that make use of artificial intelligence and machine learning draw upon past inputs to increase the accuracy of their results over time. These technologies have been adopted to improve the efficacy of search, particularly in relation to the gulf between how users are expected to input search queries, and the language they actually use to do so. They are only likely to be adopted to the extent that they improve the user’s search experience. When someone searches for something on Google, it is in the interest of both Google and the user for Google to return the most pertinent and useful results.

Board game enthusiasts, economics students, and those taking part in furious public policy debates over dinner all may have reasons to search for “Monopoly.” A company that makes it the easiest for such a diverse group of people to find what they’re looking for will enjoy increased traffic and profit than competitors. Search histories, location, trends, and additional search terns (e.g. “board game,” “antitrust”) help yield more tailored, helpful results.

Project Veritas’ film is intended to give credence to the conservative concern that culturally liberal tech firms develop their products to exclude and suppress the political right. While largely anecdotal, this concern has spurred hearings and regulatory proposals. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) recently introduced legislation that would require social media companies to prove their political neutrality in order to receive immunity from liability for their users speech. Last week, President Trump hosted a social media summit featuring prominent conservative activists and conspiracy theorists who claim to have run afoul of politically biased platform rules.

The film begins by focusing on Google’s efforts to promote fairer algorithms, which are treated as attempts to introduce political bias into search results. The insider claims that while working at Google, he found “a machine learning algorithm called ML fairness, ML standing for machine learning, and fairness meaning whatever they want to define as fair.” (6:34) The implication being that Google employees actively take steps to ensure that Google search results yield anti-conservative content rather than what a neutral search algorithm would. Unfortunately, what a “neutral” algorithm would look like is not discussed.

Although we’re living in the midst of a new tech-panic, we should remember that questions about bias in machine learning and attempts to answer them are not new, nor are they merely a concern of the right. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and the International Committee of the Fourth International have expressed concerns about algorithmic bias. Adequate or correct representation is subjective, and increasingly a political subject. In 2017, the World Socialist Web Site sent a letter to Google, bemoaning the tech giant’s “anti-left bias” and claiming that “Google is “’disappearing’ the WSWS from the results of search requests.”

However, despite the breathlessness with which O’Keefe “exposes” Google’s efforts to reduce bias in its algorithms, he doesn’t bring us much new information. The documents he presents alongside contextless hidden camera clips of Google employees fail to paint a picture of fairness in machine learning run amok.

One of the key problems with O’Keefe’s video is that he creates a false dichotomy between pure, user created signals and machine learning inputs that have been curated to eliminate eventual output bias. The unnamed insider claims that attempts to rectify algorithmic bias are equivalent to vandalism: “because that source of truth (organic user input) has been vandalized, the output of the algorithm is also reflecting that vandalism” (8:14).

But there is little reason to presumptively expect organic data to generate more “truthful” or “correct” outputs than training data that has been curated in some fashion. Algorithms sort and classify data, rendering raw input useful. Part of tuning any given machine learning algorithm is providing it with training data, looking at its output, and then comparing that output to what we already know to be true.

Take a recent example from Wimbledon. IBM uses machine learning to select highlight clips, their algorithm’s inputs include player movements and crowd reactions. While crowd reactions can provide valuable signals, they can also be misleading. “An American playing on an outside court on 4 July may get a disproportionate amount of support, throwing the highlight picking algorithm out of sync.” While we expect the crowd’s cheers to be driven by their appreciation of a player’s skill, they may also cheer to celebrate the appearance of an American on Independence Day. If IBM wants to identify moments of skillful play rather than the mere appearance of Americans on the court, they must reduce the relative importance of audience applause in their algorithm, debiasing it.  

Despite the insider’s claim that “they would never admit this publicly,” (9:45) Google is quite open about its efforts to prevent algorithmic bias. The firm maintains a list of machine learning fairness resources, including an extensive glossary of terms describing different sorts of bias, and sample code demonstrating how to train classifiers while avoiding bias. These public resources are, frankly, far more extensive, and reveal more about Google’s efforts to prevent machine learning bias, than anything in the latest Veritas video.

The fact that Google News is not an organic, unfiltered search product (11:30) is not news either. Google’s news content policies are open to the public, and Google gives further public guidance to publishers as to what their algorithms prioritize in news pages.

The “demonstration” of Google search bias that follows, relying on autocomplete suggestions rather than actual search results, are far from “undeniable.” O’Keefe first types “Hillary Clinton’s emails are” into Google’s search bar and notes that Google does not continue to autofill the search. Without actually conducting a search, they conclude that “Google is suggesting that people do not search for this term” and that “its not even worth returning any results for” (15:48). But they haven’t actually conducted a search. If they had, Google’s search would have returned millions of web pages concerning Clinton’s use of a private email server as a government employee. When one uses a more generic query, with less punctuation, typing “clinton ema” into the search bar, Google autosuggests “clinton emails on film” and “clinton emails foia”, and surfaces results from Judicial Watch and the Daily Caller. While few people may use O’Keefe’s convoluted search term, Google’s autofill doesn’t shy away from suggesting searches for Clinton’s emails, and returns a deluge of results regardless of the search phrase used.

Next, O’Keefe uses Google trends to compare searches for “Hillary Clinton’s emails” to searches for “Donald Trump’s emails”. Compared to searches for Clinton’s emails, searches for Trump’s emails are effectively nonexistent. However, these are relative trends, so the fact many more people searched for “Clinton’s emails” than “Trump’s emails” does not mean that no one has ever searched for “Trump’s emails.” Nevertheless, O’Keefe claims that the low relative interest in “Trump’s emails” implies that there ought to be no autocomplete suggestions for the search term. “Now let’s go back to Google.com and search for Donald Trump’s emails and it should show us no autocomplete because according to Google no one searches for it compared to Hillary Clinton’s emails.” (17:07) Despite this expectation, Google does indeed suggest search queries when one types “Donald Trump’s emails” into the search bar. The Google insider explains this result by saying; “according to them (Google) Hillary Clinton’s emails is a conspiracy theory and it’s unfair to return results based on her emails” (17:40).

Is this the incontrovertible evidence of Google’s bias that conservatives have been searching for? Not at all. The fact that there were relatively more searches for Clinton’s emails than for Trump’s does not mean that no one ever searched for Trump’s emails. Simply because one query is used more often than another does not imply that the seldom-used query ought not generate search suggestions. Remember that O’Keefe never actually searched for “Clinton’s emails,” and generated an absence of autocomplete results by typing “Hillary Clinton’s emails are,” a more specific search term less likely to generate autofill suggestions. Finally, far from refraining from returning “results based on her emails,” because it would be "unfair," if one actually searches for any of these Clinton email query permutations, Google returns a host of topical results.

While undercover footage of a Google employee discussing the 2016 election is supposed to provide evidence of anti-conservative animus, these clips have been so stripped of context. The employee (who I have not named here because of the threats she has received following her involuntary appearance in O’Keefe’s film) could be discussing either nefarious efforts to prevent Trump’s reelection or Google’s very public work to secure its services against Russian manipulation. Absent context it’s impossible to tell.

While perhaps inarticulately phrased, “We got screwed over in 2016, it wasn’t just us, it was, the people got screwed over, the news media got screwed over, like everyone got screwed over so we’re rapidly been like, what happened there and how do we prevent it from happening again?” (3:12) does not a smoking gun make. The employee, for her part, says that she had been approached to discuss mentorship programs for women of color and was filmed recounting how Google has worked to prevent election interference.

Escalating from mere misrepresentation to outright falsehood, the unnamed insider discusses Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. CDA 230 contains two substantive provisions. The first, (c)(1), prevents "providers of an interactive computer service" from being "treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." This prevents Planned Parenthood from suing YouTube for hosting O'Keefe's undercover videos of Planned Parenthood employees.

The second provision, (c)(2), allows content hosts to moderate content, or "restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable." This ensures that if YouTube does not want to play host to O'Keefe's misleading videos, it does not have to.

After reading only CDA 230(c)(1) to viewers, O'Keefe asks the unnamed insider about proposals to amend the statute.

19:14 O'Keefe: Some people think a solution is this section 230 and taking it away?

19:20 Unnamed Insider: I mean, they violated not only the letter of the law but the spirit of law, section 230 says that in order for them to be a platform they can’t censor the content that they have, instead they decided to act as a publisher, making them responsible for everything they put on and they're still masquerading as a platform even though they're acting as a publisher.

This is not a case of poor interpretation of law or clumsy use of language. It is simply not true. CDA 230 (c)(2) clearly contravenes the insider’s claim. The full statute explicitly provides for private moderation; "censorship" in the employee's parlance. It also makes no mention of a publisher/platform distinction. As far as the law is concerned, whether a website that hosts user submitted content is a "platform" or a "publisher" simply does not matter.

The comparison between discreet refusals to host videos and Nazi book burnings that follow (22:57) do not inspire greater confidence. While conservatives may have reason to suspect that their cultural distance from Silicon Valley makes fair moderation difficult, this concern should not spur the embrace of conspiratorial claims made by those with a history of misleadingly editing video. Public policy must rest on firm factual grounds, not aspersions and the deliberate misreading of existing statutes. Unfortunately, some members of Congress seem poised to legislate on the basis of misleading propaganda, instead of taking the time to understand how algorithms actually work.

Special thanks to Cato Institute research assistant William Duffield for research assistance. 

June 19, 2019 6:01AM

Iowa Channels Colonel Jessup in Prosecuting Truth‐​Telling

“You can’t handle the truth!” So says Jack Nicholson’s cantankerous Colonel Nathan R. Jessup in A Few Good Men upon the prosecutor’s needling inquisition into the death of a young Marine. So also say the paternalistic officials of Davenport, Iowa to tenants who seek to learn whether their eviction was motivated by what they would consider to be a good or bad reason. The Supreme Court has long held that “hurtful” speech—even outright hate speech—shares the same level of First Amendment protection as a friendly greeting. Two years ago in Matal v. Tam, the Court summarized the law thus: “Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.”

Well, Iowa courts seem to disagree with the U.S. Supreme Court. Theresa Seeberger of Davenport leased a single-family residence to Michelle Schreur and her 15-year-old daughter. After a history of late payments and other bad feelings, Seeberger finally decided to evict the two when the daughter got pregnant. When Schreur asked for the reason for the eviction, Seeberger listed some general grievances and then said that “[n]ow you’re going to bring another person into the mix.” While there are no local laws against evicting tenants for this reason, Davenport prohibits landlords from informing evictees of potentially discriminatory reasoning (family status being a protected category for this purpose).

The Iowa appellate court upheld fines (in the tens of thousands of dollars) that the Davenport Civil Rights Commission imposed on Seeberger, reasoning that her statement to Schreur was “commercial speech” and that the law prevents “landlords from subjecting prospective tenants to the stigmas associated with knowingly being discriminated against.” The Iowa Supreme Court allowed that ruling to stand.

But the government can’t use its desire for politeness as a weapon to “protect” residents from an offensive or derogatory opinion, especially in areas as important as eviction. Prodded by certain voices in the academy, a growing segment of the American public believes that the First Amendment does not in fact protect “hate” speech (whatever that means). This despite a long line of Supreme Court opinions that protect, among other things, callous protests near a fallen soldier’s funeral, the hurtful exclusion of gay organizations from a St. Patrick’s Day parade, and neo-Nazi marches designed to intimidate Holocaust survivors. We doubt there is anything different about the “commercial” context that should allow for the restriction of speech far less offensive than some of the things said in the non-commercial marketplace of ideas.

Laws that stop us from telling the truth strike at the heart of the First Amendment and foreshadow a brave new world in which a paternalistic and inevitably puritanical state determines to prohibit that which offends, upsets, disgusts, hurts, demeans, insults, stigmatizes, or, dare we say, “triggers.” Cato has thus joined with the Hamilton Lincoln Law Institute to file an amicus brief in support of Seeberger’s petition for review by the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking reversal of a state court ruling that undermines core tenets of First Amendment jurisprudence.

Far from protecting the Schreurs of the world from the “stigmas associated with knowingly being discriminated against,” statutory prohibitions against informing tenants of discriminatory motivations behind their eviction can only do more harm than the truth—depriving people of an honest answer to a very basic question: Why are you terminating my lease?

The Supreme Court will decide whether to take up Seeberger v. Davenport Civil Rights Commission in September upon returning from its summer recess.

March 14, 2018 3:12PM

Facebook and the Future of Free Speech

Britain First is a far-right ultranationalist group” hostile to Muslim immigrants in the United Kingdom. They are active online with significant consequences for their leaders if not for British elections. The leaders of Britain First, Paul Golding and Jayda Fransen, were incarcerated recently for distributing leaflets and posting online videos that reflected their extreme antipathy to Muslims. Fransen received a 36 week sentence, Golding 18 weeks. Britain First was banned from Twitter in late 2017. Now Facebook has taken down both the official Facebook page of the group and those of its two leaders.

Like many European nations, Great Britain has much more narrow protections for freedom of speech than the United States. The United States does not recognize a “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment. Great Britain criminalizes and sanctions such speech. This case is much more interesting, however, than this familiar distinction. The Britain First takedown offers a glimpse of the future of speech everywhere.

The leaders of Facebook did not just wake up on the wrong side of the bed and decide to take down Britain First’s page. Its official statement about the ban says from the start: “we are very careful not to remove posts or Pages just because some people don’t like them.” In this case, the page violated Facebook’s Community Standards against speech “designed to stir up hatred against groups in our society.” The statement does not say which posts led to the ban but The Guardian reports they “included one comparing Muslim immigrants to animals, another labelling the group’s leaders ‘Islamophobic and proud,’ and videos created to incite hateful comments against Muslims.” I understand also that Facebook gave due notice to the group of their infractions. That seems plausible. Almost three months have passed since Twitter banned Britain First. Perhaps Facebook eventually concluded Britain First had no intention of complying with their rules.

You might think Facebook has violated the freedom of speech. But that’s not the case. The First Amendment states that Congress (and by extension, government at all levels) “...shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.” If the United States government had banned an America First! website, the First Amendment would be relevant. But Facebook is not the government even though they must govern a platform for free speech. But that platform is owned by Facebook. They can govern it as they wish. Most likely they will govern it to maximize shareholder value.

Imagine public officials applied the First Amendment to Facebook. They would be required to offer their service to groups like Britain First regardless of its effects on other customers or returns to shareholders. In this hypothetical case, wouldn’t “free speech” lead to a taking of private property under the Fifth Amendment? Most, if not all, libertarians would agree that Facebook is well within its rights in this matter.

Some conservatives and Republicans are complaining that Facebook and Google enjoy monopolies that have given them control over online speech. They believe that these companies are imposing the views of their employees and excluding critics of the left from their platforms. Some conservatives say the tech companies should be taken over and governed as public utilities. They are calling for something like a Fairness Doctrine for online speech. That’s a bad idea, but the question remains whether Britain First has alternatives to Facebook.

They do. You need only search for Britain First and Gab to find the links. Indeed, Facebook appears to have a new Britain First official page.

divFacebook faces some challenges here. They have values and rules that reflect both the commitments of their leaders and their business model. However, if their interpretation of acceptable speech becomes as narrow as the definitions now dominant at some universities, political (and perhaps business) troubles will follow. No one should welcome such troubles for such a successful enterprise. But such troubles can best be avoided by being “very careful not to remove posts or Pages just because some people don’t like them” and taking steps to maximize the perceived legitimacy of their moderation decisions.

Everything I have said to this point assumes Facebook decided to ban Britain First for business or other reasons. But British Members of Parliament severely criticized Facebook late in 2017 for hosting extreme speech. Perhaps British officials successfully bullied Facebook into taking down the Britain First page. If so, we are getting a glimpse at an ugly future in which government cracks down on speech through private intermediaries thereby (in the United States) bypassing the protections offered by the First Amendment. This danger is the thorn in the rose of Internet speech.

In this case, I am skeptical that Facebook has given in to government threats. As noted, the takedown came three months after the official criticism. By waiting this long to act, Facebook appears to have withstood criticism from both the British government and private citizens.

Facebook’s actions suggest how to keep government out of political speech. Set and publicize clear standards for your platform and then enforce them fairly. When they are applied, state your reasoning publicly, so high profile cases can illustrate the precise contours of more general standards. To that I might add: engage your most persuasive critics thereafter and seek precedential coherence for your common law of content moderation.

Of course, none of this will matter unless the leadership of Facebook (and other tech companies) are willing to stand up to government bullies who seek a way around the First Amendment. Nothing is going to be more important in the days to come than making sure the governance of online speech is truly private.

March 9, 2018 9:03AM

These Kids Today: The Long History of Complaining About Violent Entertainment

On Thursday, President Trump held a meeting to discuss how and whether violent video games affect gun violence, particularly school shootings. Before getting into the details of this claim, perhaps we should take a step back and read a classic fairy tale from 1812, printed in the Brothers Grimm’s Nursery and Household Tales and titled “How the Children Played Butcher with Each Other”:

A man once slaughtered a pig while his children were looking on. When they started playing in the afternoon, one child said to the other: “You be the little pig, and I’ll be the butcher,” whereupon he took an open blade and thrust it into his brother’s neck. Their mother, who was upstairs in a room bathing the youngest child in the tub, heard the cries of her other child, quickly ran downstairs, and when she saw what had happened, drew the knife out of the child’s neck and, in a rage, thrust it into the heart of the child who had been the butcher. She then rushed back to the house to see what her other child was doing in the tub, but in the meantime it had drowned in the bath. The woman was so horrified that she fell into a state of utter despair, refused to be consoled by the servants, and hanged herself. When her husband returned home from the fields and saw this, he was so distraught that he died shortly thereinafter.  

The end.

Violent entertainment is nothing new, nor is the older generation complaining about it. In usual Trump fashion, he claimed to be “hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people's thoughts.” But it’s not true. People all over the world play video games, especially young boys, and there's no resulting correlation to acts of violence. Actually, some studies have shown that violent video games might reduce crime by keeping young men off the street and glued to their TVs. 

In 2011, the Supreme Court decided the case of Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, holding that California's 2005 law banning the the sale of "violent" video games to minors violated the First Amendment. Cato filed a brief in that case that documented the history of complaints about uniquely violent entertainment and the effectiveness of industry self-regulation--such as the MPAA movie ratings, the ESRB ratings for video games, and the Comics Code--over ham-handed government oversight. The Court cited Cato's brief in its opinion.

Due to Brown, any federal law regulating violent video games is likely to be struck down by the courts. That doesn't mean, however, that Trump and other government agents can't make things uncomfortable for the industry. Most likely, we'll just hear a bunch of complaining about "these kids today" from older generations. Everything old is new again, particularly when new forms of entertainment come around that are foreign to older generations.

As many people know, Brothers Grimm fairy tales can be shockingly violent and disturbing. In the Grimms’ “Cinderella,” the stepsisters slice off part of their feet to fit the glass slipper. When the prince notices that “blood was spurting” out of the shoes, he disqualifies them. Some critics were shocked at the tales and urged parents to protect their children from the gruesome content. Later editions of the Brothers Grimm toned down some parts, but in other parts, particularly violence suffered by evil doers in order to teach a moral lesson, the gore actually increased.

In the late 19th century, “dime novels” and “penny dreadfuls” were blamed for youth violence. An 1896 edition of the New York Times told of the “Thirteen Year Old Desperado” who robbed a gold watch from a jeweler and fired a gun while being pursued. “The boy’s friends say that he is the victim of dime novel literature,” the story concludes. Or Daniel McLaughlin, in an 1890 New York Times, “who sought to emulate the example of the heroes of the dime novels and ‘held up’ Harry B. Weir in front of 3 James Street last night.”

Next there were movies, which apparently made dime novels look tame, as the Times wrote in 1909:

The days when the police looked upon dime novels as the most dangerous of textbooks in the school for crime are drawing to a close. They have found a new subject for attack. They say that the moving picture machine, when operated by the unscrupulous, or possibly unthinking, tends even more than did the dime novel to turn the thoughts of the easily influenced to paths which sometimes lead to prison.

In fact, the Supreme Court didn’t grant movies First Amendment protection until 1952, ruling in a 1915 case that movies could “be used for evil” and thus could have their content regulated.

Movies might be bad, but violent radio dramas actually make listeners play out the violence their heads, a fact which concerned some in the ‘30s and ‘40s. In 1941, Dr. Mary Preston released a study in the Journal of Pediatrics which claimed that a majority of children had a “severe addiction” to radio crime dramas. One 10-year old told her that “Murders are best. Shooting and gangsters next. I liked the Vampire sucking out blood very much.”

In the 1950s, America had a prolonged scare about violent comic books prompted by the psychiatrist Dr. Frederic Wertham. Wertham exhorted parents to understand that comics were “an entirely new phenomenon” due to their depictions of “violence, cruelty, sadism, crime, beating, promiscuity,” and much more. Writing in the Saturday Review in 1948, Wertham chastasized those who downplayed the risk: "A thirteen-year-old boy in Chicago has just murdered a young playmate. He told his lawyer, Samuel J. Andalman, that he reads all the crime comic books he can get hold of. He has evidently not kept up with the theories that comic-book readers never imitate what they read.” Wertham’s activism led to congressional hearings and eventually the comic book industry creating the Comics Code Authority.   

Since the 1950s, we’ve seen periodic scares about violent television, movies, and now video games. And although the idea that violent entertainment might cause crime can’t be dismissed out of hand, empirical studies consistently fail to show a connection, just as with video games. The most consistent correlation is that of older generations misunderstanding the pastimes of the youth, coupled with a hearty sense of nostalgia for the good ol’ days.  

February 20, 2018 4:15PM

New York Attorney General Schneiderman Goes After Citizens United’s Donors

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman demands out-of-state charities disclose all donors for his inspection. He does not demand this of all charities, only those he decides warrant his special scrutiny. Schneiderman garnered national attention for his campaign to use the powers of his office to harass companies and organizations who do not endorse his preferred policies regarding climate change. Now, it seems he seeks to do the same to right-of-center organizations that might displease him. Our colleague Walter Olson has cataloged Schneiderman’s many misbehaviors.

He’s currently set his sights on Citizens United, a Virginia non-profit that produces conservative documentaries. While Citizens United has solicited donations in New York for decades without any problem, Schneiderman now demands that they name names, telling him who has chosen to support the group. Citizens United challenged this demand in court, arguing that to disclose this information would risk subjecting their supporters to harassment and intimidation.

These fears are not mere hyperbole. If the name Citizens United rings a bell, it’s because the organization, and the Supreme Court case of the same name, has become the Emmanuel Goldstein of the American left, complete with Democratic senators leading a ritualistic two minutes hate on the Senate floor. In 2010, the Supreme Court upheld its right to distribute Hillary: The Movie, and ever since “Citizens United” has been a synecdoche for what Democrats consider to be the corporate control of America. Is it unwarranted to think that their donors might be subjected to the sort of targeted harassment suffered by lawful gun owners, or that Schneiderman might “accidentally” release the full donor list to the public, as Obama’s IRS did with the confidential filings of gay marriage opponents?

The Supreme Court has long recognized the dangers inherent in applying the power of the state against the right of private association. The cornerstone here is 1958’s NAACP v Alabama. For reasons that hardly need be pointed out, the NAACP did not trust the state of Alabama, in the 1950s, to be good stewards of its membership lists. “Inviolability of privacy in group association may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs,” wrote Justice John Marshall Harlan II, who went as far as to compare such demands to a “requirement that adherents of particular religious faiths or political parties wear identifying arm-bands.” More recently, Justice Alito pointed out in a similar context that while there are undoubted purposes served by reasonable, limited disclosure requirements, the First Amendment requires that “speakers must be able to obtain an as-applied exemption without clearing a high evidentiary hurdle” regarding the potential harms of disclosure.

But the Second Circuit Court of Appeals has decided it knows better than the Supremes. On Thursday, it ruled that Citizen United’s challenge should be thrown out without even an opportunity to prove their case. In the process, it effectively turned NAACP into a “Jim Crow” exception to a general rule of unlimited government prerogative to panoptic intrusion into citizen’s political associations. While there can be no doubt that the struggle for civil rights presented a unique danger for its supporters, this should not mean that only such perils warrant First Amendment protection.

The marketplace of ideas is often fraught with contention, and those who support controversial causes must shoulder some risk. As the late Justice Scalia argued, “running a democracy takes a certain amount of civic courage.” But anonymity in such pursuits serves important purposes, and the premise that concealment of one’s identity is a sign of ill-will would have surprised James Madison, who published numerous defenses of the new constitution, convincing his fellow citizens of the virtue of the endeavor; he signed them “Publius.”

In our schismatic political climate, many people could suffer if their political views were made widely known. This could include everything from adverse employment actions to outright violence. Some groups, such as those in the “antifa,” have openly advocated violence against political opponents. It’s odd that some on the modern left find themselves on the same side as the state of Alabama in 1958: arguing that those who support some political views should be disclosed to the state, even if violence might result. Although an appeal has not yet been filed, the Supreme Court should take the case and reverse the Second Circuit, making it clear that a compelling government interest is required before the government can force the disclosure of people’s political affiliations.   

November 6, 2017 10:57AM

20% of College Students Say College Faculty Has Balanced Mix of Political Views

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The Cato 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey finds only 20% of current college and graduate students believe their college or university faculty has a balanced mix of political views. A plurality (39%) say most college and university professors are liberal, 27% believe most are politically moderate, and 12% believe most are conservative.

College Democrats Less Likely Than Republicans to Think Faculty Is Liberal

Democratic and Republican students see their college campuses very differently. A majority (59%) of Republican college students believe that most faculty members are liberal. In contrast, only 35% of Democratic college students agree most professors are liberal. Democratic students are also about twice as likely as Republican students to think their professors are moderate (32% vs. 16%) or conservative (14% vs. 9%).

Full survey results and report found here.

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College Students Agree Student Body is Liberal



Current students believe that most of their campus’ student body is liberal. Fifty-percent (50%) believe that most students at their college or university are liberal, 21% believe most are moderate, 8% believe most are conservative, and 19% believe there is a balanced mix of political views.

Democratic and Republican students largely agree on the ideological composition of their campus student body.

Consequences of Campus Political Climate

These perceptions of ideological homogeneity on college campuses may explain why 72% of Republican college students say the political climate prevents them from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive. About a quarter (26%) of Republican college students feel they can share their political views.

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Far fewer Democratic college students feel they can’t share their beliefs. College Democrats (51%) are 21 points less likely than Republican students (72%) to feel they can’t share their views. Nevertheless over half of Democratic students also feel the need to self-censor. Interestingly, college students who identify as independents (70%) are about as likely as Republicans (72%) to say they feel uncomfortable sharing their opinions as well.

Only current students who identify as “very liberal” do not feel the need to self-censor (74%). However, liberal college students (55%) instead feel that they have to hide some of their political views, as well as 69% of moderates, 71% of conservatives, and 83% of strongly conservative students.

In sum, there is a widespread perception that most faculty and students at American colleges and universities are liberal. But it’s not just perception. Empirical studies of faculty ideology confirm what most students observe. Surveys conducted by sociologist Neil Gross and others find that, indeed, most of the professoriate is liberal. Sam Abrams at Heterodoxacademy.org summarizes some of this data to show that as of 2014 about 12% of professors are conservative while about 60% are liberal. Further, the Cato Free Speech and Tolerance Survey finds that nearly half (46%) of current college and graduate students identify as Democrats or independents who lean Democratic. About a quarter identify as Republican (27%).

These results matter because if universities become political echo chambers, it could lead to the exclusion of non-conforming political views, self-censorship, and less rigorous academic inquiry. Without a free exchange of ideas, there may be less thorough checking of academic work and the quality of research may decline. By extension, the public may lose confidence in the process of academic inquiry and become skeptical of its results.

Full survey results and report found here.

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The Cato Institute 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey was designed and conducted by the Cato Institute in collaboration with YouGov. YouGov collected responses online August 15-23, 2017 from a national sample of 2,300 Americans 18 years of age and older. The margin of error for the survey is +/- 3.00 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence.

November 3, 2017 11:54AM

51% of Strong Liberals Say It’s Morally Acceptable to Punch Nazis

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Is violence an appropriate response to hate speech? The Cato 2017 Free Speech and Tolernace Survey finds most Americans say no. More than two-thirds (68%) of Americans say it is not morally acceptable to punch a Nazi in the face. About a third (32%), however, say it is morally acceptable.[1] 

Strong liberals stand out with a slim majority (51%) who say it’s moral to punch Nazis. Only 21% of strong conservatives agree.

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Full survey results and report found here.

Strong liberals’ approval of Nazi-punching is not representative of Democrats as a whole. A majority (56%) of Democrats believe it is not morally acceptable to punch a Nazi. Thus, tolerance of violence as a response to offensive speech and ideas is found primarily on the far Left.

The survey found liberals were more likely to consider upsetting and controversial ideas “hateful” rather than simply “offensive.” This may help partially explain why staunch liberals are more comfortable than the average American with using violence against Nazis.

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Approval for punching Nazis also varies with age and race. Millennials (42%) are nearly twice as likely as people over 55 (24%) to say such violence is morally justified. African Americans (45%) are also more likely than whites (28%) and Latinos (35%) to say punching Nazis is morally acceptable. Nevertheless, majorities of each of these groups say physical force is not justified, even against a Nazi.

Full survey results and report found here.

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The Cato Institute 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey was designed and conducted by the Cato Institute in collaboration with YouGov. YouGov collected responses online August 15-23, 2017 from a national sample of 2,300 Americans 18 years of age and older. The margin of error for the survey is +/- 3.00 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence.

 

 




[1] Data on punching Nazis in this section come from a Cato Institute/YouGov survey conducted August 21 to 22, 2017 (N=1,141). Question wording: “Is it morally acceptable or unacceptable to punch a Nazi?" See Survey Methodology for further details.