Tag: freedom of speech

What’s Missing from Facebook’s Oversight Board

Facebook has set out a draft charter for an “Oversight Board for Content Decisions.” This document represents the first concrete step yet toward the “Supreme Court” for content moderation suggested by Mark Zuckerberg. The draft charter outlines the board itself and poses several related questions for interested parties. I will offer thoughts on those questions in upcoming blog posts. I begin here not with a question posed by Facebook, but rather by discussing two values I think get too little attention in the charter: legitimacy and deliberation.

The draft charter mentions “legitimacy” once: “The public legitimacy of the board will grow from the transparent, independent decisions that the board makes.” Legitimacy is commonly defined as conforming to law or existing rules (see, for example, the American Heritage Dictionary). But Facebook is clearly thinking more broadly, and they are wise to do so. Those who remove content from Facebook (and the board that judges the propriety of those removals) have considerable power. The authors of banned content acquire at least a certain stigma and may incur a broader social censure. Facebook has every legal right to remove the content, but they also need public acceptance of this power to impose costs on others. Absent that acceptance, the oversight board might become just another site of irreconcilable political differences or worse, “the removed” will call in the government to make things right. The oversight board should achieve many goals, but its architects might think first about its legitimacy.

The term “deliberation” also gets one mention in the draft charter: “Members will commit themselves not to reveal private deliberations except as expressed in official board explanations and decisions.” So there will be deliberations, and they will not be public (more on this in later posts about transparency). The case for deliberation is strengthened by considering its absence.

The draft could have said “members will commit themselves not to reveal private voting….” In a pure stakeholder model of the board, members would accurately represent the Facebook community (that is, they would be diverse). Members would consider the case before them and vote to advance the interests of those they represent. No deliberation would be necessary, though talk among members might be permitted. And, of course, such voting could be both transparent and independent. But the decision would be a mere weighing of interests rather than a consideration of reasons.

Why would those disappointed by the decision nonetheless consider it legitimate? Facebook could say to the disappointed: The board has final say on appeals of content moderation (after all, it’s in the terms of service you signed), and this is their decision. Logically that deduction might do the trick, but I think a somewhat different process might increase the legitimacy of the content moderation in the eyes of the disappointed. 

Consider a deliberative model for the board. A subset of the board meets and discusses the case before them. Arguments are offered, values probed, and conclusions reached. But the votes on the case would be informed by the prior deliberation. Members will represent the larger community in its many facets, but the path from representation to voting will include a collective giving and taking of reasons. That difference, I think, makes the deliberative model more likely to gain legitimacy. Simply losing a vote can seem like an expression of power. Losing an argument is more acceptable, and later the argument might be renewed with a different outcome.

The importance of deliberation implicates other values in the charter, especially independence. The draft places great weight on the independence of the board from Facebook. That emphasis is understandable. Critics have said Facebook will turn a blind eye to dangerous speech because it attracts attention and thereby, advertising dollars (Mark Zuckerberg has rebutted this criticism). The emphasis on independence from the business contains a truth: a board dedicated to maximizing Facebook’s quarterly returns might have a hard time gaining legitimacy. But the board’s deliberations should not be completely independent of Facebook. Facebook needs to make money to exist. Doing great harm to Facebook as a business cannot be part of the remit of the board. 

Here, as so often in life, James Madison has something valuable to add. In Federalist 10, Madison argues that political institutions should be designed to protect the rights of citizens and to advance “the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Facebook is a community. The Community Standards (and the board’s interpretation of them) should serve the permanent and aggregate interests of that community. The prosperity of the company (though perhaps not necessarily at every margin) is surely in the interest of the community. The interests represented on the board are a starting point for understanding the interests of that community, but in themselves they are not enough for that.  Deliberation might be the bridge between those interests and the “permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Looked at that way, most users would have a reason to believe in the legitimacy of a deliberative board as opposed to a board of stakeholders.

Facebook’s draft charter evinces hard work and thought. But it could benefit from more focus on the conditions for the legitimacy of the oversight board. Deliberation (rather than simple interest representation) is part of the answer to the legitimacy question. As deliberations go forward, perhaps the charter’s framers might give more attention to how institutional design can foster deliberation.

One Threat To Freedom Of Opinion Down, In California. Many More To Go.

At Overlawyered, I’ve repeatedly covered California Attorney General Kamala Harris’s audacious demand for the donor lists of nonprofits that carry on activities in California, a step likely to lead to both private and public retaliation against individuals and groups revealed to have donated to unpopular or controversial causes. So this is good news: a federal district judge in California has ruled that her crusade violates the Constitutional rights of one such group, Americans for Prosperity Foundation.

As the WSJ notes in an editorial, U.S. District Judge Manuel Real “declared her disclosure requirement an unconstitutional burden on First Amendment rights,” finding that there was scant evidence the disclosures were necessary to prevent charitable fraud, and that, contrary to assurances, her office had “systematically failed to maintain the confidentiality” of nonprofits’ donor lists, some 1,400 of which Harris’s office had in fact published online. As for retaliation against donors, “although the Attorney General correctly points out that such abuses are not as violent or pervasive as those encountered in NAACP v. Alabama or other cases from [the civil rights] era,” he wrote, “this Court is not prepared to wait until an AFP opponent carries out one of the numerous death threats made against its members.”

Government Can’t Censor Digital Expression Just Because Someone Somewhere Might Use It for Unlawful Purposes

It’s alas old news when the government couples an imposition on liberty with an exercise in futility—security theater, anyone?—but it’s still finding inventive ways to do so in a nifty case that combines the First Amendment, the Second Amendment, and 3D printing.

Defense Distributed, a nonprofit organization that promotes popular access to constitutionally protected firearms, generates and disseminates information over the Internet for a variety of scientific, artistic, and political reasons. The State Department has ordered the company to stop online publication of certain CAD (Computer-Aided Drafting) files—complex three-dimensional printing specifications with no intellectual-property protection—even domestically. These files can be used to 3D-print the Liberator, a single-shot handgun. The government believes that the files that could be used to print the Liberator are subject to the International Trafficking in Arms Regulations, because they could be downloaded by foreigners and thus are “exports” of arms information that could cause unlawful acts.

The First Amendment Is More than a Political Slogan

During the November 2010 election, a number of Minnesota voters were greeted at the polls with threats of criminal prosecution just for wearing hats, buttons, or shirts bearing the images, slogans, or logos of their favorite political causes (typically not relating to the Republican or Democratic parties).

Election officials cited Minnesota Statute § 211B.11, which makes it a misdemeanor to wear a “political badge, political button, or other political insignia” to the polls on election days. While there is no definition of “political” in the statute, an Election Day Policy distributed before the election explained that the statute bans any material “designed to influence or impact voting” or “promoting a group with recognizable political views.”

After several of their members were forced to cover up or remove clothing or accessories deemed to be political — in the sole discretion of an election official — a group of organizations and individuals brought suit to challenge the state law on the grounds that it unlawfully stifles core First Amendment-protected speech. The federal district court dismissed the suit, finding that § 211B.11 satisfied the lesser degree of judicial scrutiny to which viewpoint-neutral speech restrictions are subject. On appeal, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit upheld the law’s constitutionality, citing precedent permitting bans on active campaigning at polling sites and extending that reasoning to allow prohibitions even on passive political expression.

Those challenging the law have now asked the Supreme Court to review their case. Cato joined the Rutherford Institute on a brief supporting them, arguing that the Minnesota law’s absolute ban on “political” materials at polling sites is an unconstitutional restriction of core First Amendment speech.

Protecting the right of the people to advocate political causes is one of the primary purposes of our constitutional protections for the freedom of speech, so government restrictions in this area must be narrowly drawn and for a truly compelling reason, regardless of the type of forum where the ban applies. While the Eighth Circuit relied on precedent permitting bans on campaigning at polling sites, prohibiting inert political expression at these locations doesn’t serve a similar interest; passive expression simply doesn’t pose the same threats to elections — intimidation and chilling of voters — that active campaigning can. Accordingly, § 211B.11 cannot pass strict scrutiny; in legal terms, the restrictions it imposes are simultaneously under-inclusive, over-inclusive, and overly broad.

The Supreme Court will decide whether to take the case of Minnesota Majority v. Mansky late this fall.

New Mexico Court Is Wrong: Government Must Treat People Equally, but Individuals Should Have Liberty to Speak, Associate, and Believe

On Thursday, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled in Elane Photography v. Willcock that the First Amendment doesn’t protect a photographer’s right to decline to take pictures of a same-sex wedding against the requirements of the state’s Human Rights Act, which forbids discriminating against people on the basis of sexual orientation. This is a terrible result, for the freedom of speech and association, and for religious liberty. As I’ve argued before, even supporters of marriage equality (and equality generally) should not be blind to other violations of fundamental rights.

The New Mexico law is one of multiple state and federal “public accommodations” laws that prohibit private discrimination by companies that offer services to the public. These laws are antithetical to liberty and forbidden by the Constitution. The Supreme Court held in 1883’s Civil Rights Cases that the 14th Amendment – the provision that speaks to equal protection – doesn’t authorize Congress to legislate against discrimination by private citizens.

A hundred years later, however, the Court held that such power exists under the Commerce Clause – even where the business is confined to a single state. This is just one more instance of Commerce Clause abuse, something Cato has fought on numerous occasions, including the successful Commerce Clause challenge to Obamacare’s individual mandate.           

The legislation at issue in Elane Photography didn’t come from Congress, so the question of federal power doesn’t arise. But even if a state legislature has the authority to act in a specific area, that authority can’t be exercised in a manner that violates the constitutional rights of the those subject to it. Yet the New Mexico high court disagreed with the position we took in our amicus brief and held that compelling someone to engage in artistic photography somehow doesn’t violate the freedom of speech if they aren’t forced to broadcast a government-sponsored message (for more on the inadequacy of the court’s ruling see comments by Dale Carpenter and Hans Bader). 

Even if you agree with the court that New Mexico’s law doesn’t violate Elane Photography’s speech rights, however, it clearly violates the company’s freedom of association and freedom of contract – two rights which, while not explicitly named in the Constitution, are clearly implicit in our understanding of “liberty.” The right to freely associate and contract with others must include a negative right not to do so – or the right is meaningless. This isn’t a defense of bigoted business practices, but a defense of choice, and it applies across the board: I don’t like homophobia, or racism, or any other number of irrational or even deplorable attitudes, but as I said on 20/20 earlier this month, being a jerk isn’t illegal.

If a restaurant doesn’t like how you’re dressed, it has the right not to serve you. No shirt, no shoes, no service, no problem – or, at least that’s the way it should be. My property is my property and my time is my time. I have the right to sell or rent both to anyone I want – or not to, as the case may be. We don’t need a government forcing businesses to serve people because the market will do that for us: refusing customers – refusing to make a profit – over something as irrelevant as a customer’s skin color or sexual orientation is a losing business strategy. 

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has been hostile to freedom of association and contract since the 1930s, notably in the 1984 case of Roberts v. U.S. Jaycees, where the Court upheld a law that required the Jaycees, a private self-help and leadership training group, to begin admitting women, over the membership’s objections. More recently, Christian Legal Society v Martinez, (in which Cato also filed a brief), the Court ruled that a Christian student group couldn’t restrict candidacy for leadership and ministerial positions to students who shared the group’s faith. (Accordingly, Democrats apparently have to admit Republicans, PETA has to admit meat-lovers, and so forth.) In these cases, the Supreme Court, like the New Mexico court, held that the government’s interest in equality and “non-discrimination” allows it to run roughshod over individual liberties.

While the last few terms at the Court have included numerous important victories for freedom – and we may be living what I like to call the Court’s “libertarian moment” – the Court’s protection of individual liberty is patchy. The rights of criminal suspects, the religious, property owners, businesses, and many others, are all occasionally sacrificed in the name of “progress”.

Does Freedom of Speech Conflict with Freedom of Religion?

This is a provocative question, of course, or at least it is seemingly everywhere in the world but the United States. In just the last three years, the Supreme Court has protected highly offensive funeral protests, violent video games, animal “crush” videos, and a host of other types of expression. No law punishing blasphemy or “defamation of religion”—as approved by various UN resolutions and making inroads into the legal codes of even Western countries—could possibly survive First Amendment scrutiny. But that’s not the case elsewhere in the world, as an excellent new video by Danish human rights lawyer Jacob Mchangama shows (courtesy of Free to Choose TV; see press release):

America isn’t immune from increasing demands that free speech be limited to respect religious feelings. Recall the condemnations of the anti-Islamic video that may have caused rioting in Cairo on September 11 of last year (but not in Beghazi, as details of that scandal develop). The outcome of this battle will have profound consequences for the ability of people everywhere to freely express themselves and follow their beliefs. Democratic governments play a dangerous game when appeasing religious sensitivities rather than defending free speech.

Mchangama, not coincidentally, is affiliated with the invaluable Human Rights Foundation—an organization that deals with actual human rights violations rather than simply being a vehicle for pushing a transnational leftist agenda—whose president, Thor Halvorssen (with whom I’ve been acquainted since college), calls himself a “classical liberal” rather than a man of the Right or Left.

Students Have Free Speech and Due Process Rights Too

This past Friday, a federal jury in Atlanta sent a powerful message to university administrators across the nation: you cannot violate students’ free speech and due process rights with impunity. The jury found Valdosta State University president Ronald Zaccari personally liable for $50,000 in damages for expelling former VSU student Hayden Barnes, who peacefully protested a planned $30-million campus parking garage. The trial and award followed a ruling last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit that Zaccarri could not claim the immunity given to public officials acting in their official capacities because he should have known that Barnes was entitled to notice and a hearing before being expelled.

Barnes’s saga began in 2007, when Zaccarri announced, and Barnes protested, the proposed garage construction.  Barnes’s activities included sending emails to student and faculty governing bodies, writing letters to the editor of the VSU student newspaper, and composing a satirical collage on Facebook. In retaliation for these acts, Zaccari ordered that Barnes be “administratively withdrawn” from VSU, without any hearing before his expulsion in May 2007.

Barnes sued Zaccarri in 2010, and the federal district court quickly ruled that that Zaccarri had violated Barnes’ constitutional right to due process and that the administrator could not avail himself of qualified immunity because he had ignored “clearly established” law. When Zaccarri appealed to the Eleventh Circuit, Cato joined an amicus brief filed on behalf of 15 organizations, successfully asking the court to affirm on both First Amendment and due process grounds.

As stated in the brief, the “desire of some administrators to censor unwanted, unpopular, or merely inconvenient speech on campus is matched by a willingness to seize upon developments in the law that grant them greater leeway to do so.” The immense importance of constitutional rights on public university campus is due in no small part to the reluctance of school administrators to abide by clearly established law protecting student rights. 

Qualified immunity is intended to protect public officials who sincerely believe their actions are reasonable and constitutional, not those who willfully and maliciously ignore well known law in a determined effort to deprive another of constitutional rights.  In this case, Zaccarri even rejected the advice of in-house counsel concerning the process required before Barnes could be deprived of his enrollment at VSU and neglected to abide by the procedures set forth in the VSU Student Handbook.

This verdict is cause for celebration for those concerned with individual rights.  It will encourage students to exercise and defend their freedom of speech and due process, serving as a warning to administrators that they may not willfully disregard those rights. Perhaps most importantly, it vindicates Hayden Barnes, who has endured a grueling three years of litigation in order to earn, in his own words, “a victory for students everywhere.”

Thanks to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for orchestrating this case, including finding longtime Cato ally Robert Corn-Revere to be Barnes’s counsel and asking Cato to join its amicus brief.  Read FIRE’s press release on Barnes v. Zaccari.

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