Facebook, Free Speech & Holocaust Deniers

This month Facebook came under tremendous pressure to ban Holocaust Denial groups.  Thankfully, Facebook didn’t fold under the enormous pressure from bloggers and traditional media (including Brian Cuban, TechCrunch and Mashable) to outright ban people or groups that deny that the Holocaust occurred.  Facebook did end up banning two Holocaust Denial groups because of violations to the company’s terms of service, but not all of the groups.

Michael Arrington at TechCrunch spoke for many calling for the ban when he wrote:

“But in the last few days I’ve read a lot (a whole lot) of Holocaust denial literature on the Internet, and it is extremely scary stuff. The whole point of it is to suggest that Jews are engaged in a massive conspiracy to fool the world. These are the same types of conspiracy theories that led to the Holocaust in the first place.”

There’s no doubt that Holocaust Deniers are idiots (just as dumb, although arguably more dangerous, as groups that believe the earth is flat or that the world is only 6,000 years old).  I commend Arrington and others for speaking out against Holocaust Deniers, but don’t agree that partaking in conspiracy theories leads to the extermination of millions of innocent people.

Ban George Will? The UFOs told me climate change is fake.

Ban George Will? The UFOs told him climate change is fake.

I also disagree with the argument that Facebook as a private company shouldn’t abide by the First Amendment (which permits free speech and expression in the United States).  According to this argument, Facebook should ban hate groups because the law doesn’t apply to private enterprises.  This is a dangerous precedent for a company with ambitions be a platform for global communication. By this argument, Google, Yahoo and other search engines should divert traffic from web sites that it deems inappropriate and hateful.  Banning groups and individuals is a very slippery and treacherous slope.

Free speech is the crux of any free society.  It is vital to the discovery of new ideas.  The right to free speech is why we no longer have slavery and why women now vote.  Both points of view were considered radical and even hateful in their day.  Free speech allows for dissent and creates ideas like the radical notion that blacks should have the same rights as whites.

But advocating free speech comes with a price.  It means that moronic or even hateful speech needs to be protected as well.  It’s easy to advocate banning Holocaust Deniers on the surface.  But where would Arrington and the others have Facebook drawn the line?

Should all hateful or dangerous groups be banned from Facebook?  Does this mean we should ban those groups and individuals who deny climate change (like columnist George Will and George W. Bush)?  Because isn’t that dangerous?  What about advocates who promote the notion that gays and lesbians are abomonations?  Isn’t fighting against gay marriage hateful to a minority group?  Aren’t some antiabortion groups hateful?  What about those who deny the Armenian genocide?  How about conspiracy theorists who believe the U.S. government was behind 9/11?  How about those who deny evolution?

The list could go on and on.  Free speech means just that – the freedom to say what you want and believe in what you want (as long as you don’t violate any other laws).

Facebook should be commended for its courage in standing up to the intense pressure to ban the Holocaust Deniers.  It would have been easy to do so.  But the company choose instead the more difficult road: free speech.  Good for them.

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