- - Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg was not born in 1977 when a suburb of Chicago became one of the most important free speech battlegrounds of the 20th century.

Decades before Mr. Zuckerberg’s social platform would decide to censor a president of the United States for repeatedly posting claims that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen,” the leaders of Skokie, Illinois, tried to stop the National Socialist Party of America — Nazis, for short — from marching in their town, which was home to many Holocaust survivors and their kin.

On the principle that the First Amendment exists to protect unpopular forms of expression, the American Civil Liberties Union successfully defended the Nazis’ right to march in Skokie (by the time the legal drama played out, the Nazis decided to take their parade elsewhere).

That was a different world than the one we are living in today. While fear of government censorship still exists, the globe’s digital behemoths — Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube — possess more unchecked power and technological capability to suppress speech than any government.



When it comes to Facebook, Mr. Zuckerberg in 2019 gave an impassioned defense of free expression to an audience at Georgetown University. Two years later, Facebook’s quasi-independent Oversight Board is chastising the social media giant for indefinitely suspending former President Donald Trump for allegedly encouraging violence during the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally at the U.S. Capitol. The board upheld the initial ban but punted the ultimate decision on whether to reinstate Mr. Trump back to Facebook, which the board said must make a decision within six months.

Facebook’s move to take away Mr. Trump’s megaphone has united free speech advocates on the right and left.

In the latest episode of the History As It Happens podcast, ACLU attorney Vera Eidelman said even though Facebook, Twitter, and other social media companies are businesses, their power to silence unpopular ideas endangers one of the most cherished values of living in a free society.

“We certainly condemn Trump’s speech … and we also recognize that Facebook is a private corporation … but we also recognize Facebook, Twitter and a handful of other companies will really be making a lot of the central free-expression decisions in the coming years,” Ms. Eidelman said. “Our normative position, as a matter of principle, is that these platforms should resist calls to censor.”

Beyond the important implications for free expression, Facebook’s Trump problem should focus our attention on the company’s business model, the freewheeling regulatory environment, and the company’s control of advertising, said Jack Balkin, the founder and director of Yale’s Information Society Project.

“If you give one company the power to decide the structure of public discourse, that power can easily be abused,” Mr. Balkin said. “How is that affecting our democracy? Not only our democracy, but democracies around the world.”

For more of Ms. Eidelman’s and Mr. Balkin’s insights into whether Big Tech platforms will ever be capable of effectively policing speech, and whether there is a role for new government regulations, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.

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