White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest found himself in the awkward position this week of reminding reporters that free speech is a constitutionally protected right.
The nebulous term “fake news” embraced by media outlets since the Election Day loss of Democrat Hillary Clinton found its way into a press briefing on Monday. New York Times White House correspondent Gardiner Harris asked Mr. Earnest two questions, which both forced him to give the room a crash course on the First Amendment.
“The President has recently been discussing the problem of fake news on Facebook,” Mr. Harris said. “Why hasn’t there been a concern — a growing concern on the part of the administration about what seems to be a growing amount of vitriol directed at a variety of people, sometimes violent vitriol, within the United States?”
Mr. Earnest responded by discussing limits put in place on the federal government since the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788.
“Obviously, there are some important First Amendment issues that come into play when we’re having this discussion,” the White House official said. “Those First Amendment issues aren’t prioritized in the same way when we’re talking about overseas terrorist organizations that don’t enjoy the same kinds of protections that American citizens do. […] Many of the entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley didn’t develop this technology to make it easier for hate to be propagated online. Their idea was to build a community where people could more effectively communicate and engage in commerce.”
“So they’ve got their own built-in interest in protecting the First Amendment rights of their users while also creating a community and a platform that people actually want to use,” Mr. Earnest continued.
The New York Times reporter was not placated by the answer.
“Do you think the market just will have to police itself on that then?” Mr. Harris asked, the Daily Caller reported.
“Well, look, I don’t think it necessarily has to be — I think there is a — given the First Amendment questions that are raised, the role for the government to play in all of this is going to be necessarily limited by that,” Mr. Earnest replied. “But I don’t think it eliminates the possibility that the U.S. government could contribute to a productive, fruitful conversation about the effective administration of these online platforms to ensure that people’s lives aren’t at risk.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg responded to “fake news” furor on Nov. 19 by telling followers the company is committed to fighting “misinformation.”
“Our goal is to connect people with the stories they find most meaningful, and we know people want accurate information. We’ve been working on this problem for a long time and we take this responsibility seriously. We’ve made significant progress, but there is more work to be done,” Mr. Zuckerberg wrote. “While the percentage of misinformation is relatively small, we have much more work ahead on our roadmap.”