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On the Freedom of (Hate) Speech

May 31, 2013

I’m pretty sick of the Freedom of Speech argument being invoked whenever someone gets called out for being an asshole. Like recall the terrible humor of Daniel Tosh. When many, many people called him out for joking on stage about how funny it would be if a woman in the audience was gang-raped on the spot, his supporters cried that comedy should have no limits (yeah, but one problem is Tosh is not funny) and that he has Freedom of Speech. My response was largely: Yes, you can say whatever you want, but I’m allowed in return to call you an asshole.

The latest Freedom of Speech scandal is over Women, Action & Media’s open letter to Facebook to remove gender-based hate speech. (TRIGGER WARNING: The images posted here are very upsetting.) Facebook has agreed to take down the images in question, and has committed to “refine its approach to hate speech.”

In response, Jillian York of the XX Factor has written an article, Facebook Should Not be in the Business of Censoring Speech, Even Hate Speech. (Under the banner of “What Women Really Think.”)

Now let’s be clear what we are talking about when we invoke Freedom of Speech. There is the Law and then there is the societal ideal. As York correctly notes, Facebook is not the government, y’all. It’s a private company. They can regulate the speech on their site however they want. And they ALREADY HAVE a definition of Hate Speech from which to flag content. Women, Action & Media’s open letter  is simply asking Facebook to expand the definition of Hate Speech to include images and text that depict and promote violence against women. And if you want to see the images they have flagged at the above link, there is no question that they are abhorrent. In the letter they asked for Facebook to:

1. Recognize speech that trivializes or glorifies violence against girls and women as hate speech and make a commitment that you will not tolerate this content.

2. Effectively train moderators to recognize and remove gender-based hate speech.

3. Effectively train moderators to understand how online harassment differently affects women and men, in part due to the real-world pandemic of violence against women.

What York takes issue with here is the assault on the ideal of freedom of speech in the “quasi-public sphere” that is facebook. At the same time, she questions whether it is ideal for a company to be defining hate speech for the public. Now the problems and implications of embracing the corporatization of the public sphere is an interesting conversation for another time, but here I want to question what is our ideal of freedom of speech in the public spaces we create? The posters of this content have not been banned from the site or prosecuted, the content is simply being asked to be removed, based on site standards. I think this is more a question of community norms and inclusivity. In this quasi-public sphere do we want to restrict calls for violence? Do we want women to feel safe to participate in the community?

The fact is there already a limitation on Hate Speech on Facebook, created by the site. Users are asking for a refinement of these guidelines. Yes, it is still Facebook’s decision, but isn’t this the ideal way for the norms of this public space to be shaped? By a large group of users asking to change the guideline based on community values? Not according to York. Her final argument?

While the campaigners on this issue are to be commended for raising awareness of such awful speech on Facebook’s platform, their proposed solution is ultimately futile and sets a dangerous precedent for special interest groups looking to bring their pet issue to the attention of Facebook’s censors.

Yep. Violence against women is just a pet issue. We’re on a slippery slope to not allowing promotion of violence against all sorts of people on Facebook. A truly upsetting way to end an article under the banner of “what women really think.”


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