Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Should the First Amendment reign supreme in cyberspace?

I was a teenager, playing Scrabble at the kitchen table with my family, when the radio announced that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. I don’t recall being particularly shocked by the news; after all, King was a transformative figure, a black leader in a country still marred by white racism. But clearly that killing must have affected me, because last week I was relieved when I learned that the Secret Service had been brought in to protect Barack Obama.

Maybe it’s a baby-boomer thing. A colleague of mine, who is roughly my age, told me last week that he too has been fretting about Obama’s exposure, fearing that the first serious black candidate could draw the racists out of the woodwork. Referring to the Secret Service story, he remarked, “I’m happy to see my tax dollars spent that way.”

In similar fashion, I was relieved – at first, anyway – to learn last Friday that the website at CBS News has decided to ban all posted comments about Obama, because of the “volume and persistence” of racist invective. The website doesn’t have the resources to screen the flood of comments received every day (a task that is tougher and more time-consuming than it might seem), so they’re going for a blanket ban. The director of news operations at CBSNews.com put it this way: “It's very simple. We have our rules of engagement. They prohibit personal attacks, especially racist attacks. (Comments) about Obama have been problematic, and we won't tolerate it."

Which is a polite way of saying that a major outlet does not feel any obligation to provide a forum for knuckle-draggers with keyboards. Why validate the kind of people who think the same way as James Earl Ray?

But, upon reflection, the issues here are more complicated than that. The transparency of the Internet has broadened the range of public discourse, and forced media outlets to think anew about the risks of unfettered free speech and the slippery slope of censorship. Nobody has quite figured out how to put these factors into proper balance. The new CBS policy is one possible solution. But by banning the kind of hate speech that was commonly associated with Jim Crow violence a few scant generations ago, the kind of hate speech that was common at the time of King’s killing, the website is also penalizing the many thoughtful Americans who do want to debate about Obama in a civil manner.

In other words, a case can be made that, by censoring the racists, the racists have won. An Obama spokesman appeared to rebuke the CBS decision when he said, “It’s too bad that a few discordant voices would be allowed to muzzle the vast majority of folks who are interested and want to participate in the dialogue.”

The civil libertarian argument, to which I am sympathetic, is that the First Amendment should reign supreme in cyberspace - protecting everybody, from Mensa members to morons – thus promoting the freest possible marketplace of ideas, and exposing racists to the rigors of reasoned rebuttal. For many online media outlets, this argument is also a marriage of principle and economics, because (a) they don’t want to be in a position of censoring some comments while allowing others, especially since it’s often hard to determine where to draw the line on acceptability; and, frankly (b) they often don’t have the financial resources to screen each and every comment prior to online publication.

Yet clearly, some lines do need to be drawn somewhere. The U.S. Supreme Court, back in 1919, ruled that the First Amendment is not absolute in all cases; it said that free speech was not acceptable if it constituted “a clear and present danger,” or caused public panic (such as falsely “shouting fire in a crowded theatre”). But those terms as well are open to interpretation; in some quarters, it has already been deemed a clear and present danger (or perhaps simply offensive in the visceral sense) to post a blithe comment about the issue of assassination. This past February, for example, Arianna Huffington posted a wire story on her liberal website about a failed attempt in Afghanistan on the life of Vice President Cheney; when readers sought to express their (presumably facetious?) disappointment that Cheney was still alive, she shut down the comments section.

These issues will not be resolved any time soon. Undoubtedly, media outlets will grope for a middle ground, perhaps by hiring more screeners. CBS News has already signaled that it would like to proceed that way, and reopen the forum to acceptable Obama comments, assuming it can fairly define what is acceptable.

Twelve years ago, there was a lot of buzz about Colin Powell running for president, but in the end he reportedly bowed to the wishes of his wife, Alma, who feared that, like Martin Luther King, he too would become a target. And this all happened before the Internet became ubiquitous. I would bet, given what’s happening online today, with its attendant free speech issues, that the Powells have no regrets.