The recent controversy about whether conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ absurdities should be removed from media platforms has been shaped by his supporters as both a First Amendment and censorship issue.
It is neither.
It is an integrity issue. The actions of the managers at Facebook, YouTube and Apple in removing his incendiary content are unsurprising. And certainly, they are very easy to justify.
Free speech isn’t free — it comes with consequences. The First Amendment guarantees only that the government isn’t going to arrest you for what you say, with limited exceptions.
It doesn’t shield you from criticism or consequences. It doesn’t protect you from being fired for what you say in the workplace. It doesn’t mean that anyone has to listen to you. People can boycott you, cancel your television show or ban you from their internet communities.
If you express extreme and reprehensible views, in person or online, you may be ostracized by society.
Jones is a Texas-based media pundit whose InfoWars website is a hotbed of bizarre theories detached from any semblance of reality. The only downside we can see of booting him from Facebook, YouTube and Apple is creating a martyr in the eyes of the radical fringe.
Some of his musings:
• The 9/11 terrorist attacks and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing were perpetrated by the U.S. government.
• The 2012 Sandy Hook shootings, in which 20 children and six adults in Connecticut were slaughtered by a young gunman, were an invention.
• David Hogg and other eloquent survivors of the Parkland, Florida, school shootings in February are paid actors, hired to advance a gun-control agenda. (This is popularly known as “Second Amendment fan fiction.”)
He has also been censured for promoting “Pizzagate,” a bizarre story about human trafficking whose publication led to death threats at a Washington, D.C., restaurant, and a false story about an Idaho food processor importing migrant rapists — both fictions for which Jones has had to apologize.
The problem isn’t that Jones holds these views, or tries to disseminate them. The issue is that all too often his pronouncements lead others to threaten, vandalize and harass the subjects of his false stories.
Facebook pages which carried Jones’ statements have been removed after evidence that he disseminated hate speech against Robert Mueller, the special counsel who is investigating President Donald Trump and his close associates; so, too, has his YouTube channel, and so has Apple, which hosted his podcasts on its iTunes platform. Mueller’s probe reportedly examined whether InfoWars had anything to do with Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections.
In all cases, these private publishing companies have said the outrageous claims fail to meet their standards and may incite illegal actions.
If this controversy over the First Amendment sounds familiar, it is because it has often been addressed on the opinion page of this newspaper.
The Daily Astorian has always had a clear editorial voice, dating back well before the late J.W. “Bud” Forrester set the standard for never sitting on the fence. We keep our opinions to this editorial page, while seeking to publish unbiased news stories on all our other pages.
And because our editorial viewpoints, especially on national politics, consistently lean in one direction, we strive to offer a platform for readers and columnists to offer alternate and often conflicting views.
But with this offer comes a caveat. We genuinely welcome letters and columns that express viewpoints that are contrary to ours. But we won’t publish material that is characterized by name-calling, or accuses people of crimes for which they have not been convicted, or seeks to broadcast unverifiable claims and complaints against businesses or individuals.
Because we set and enforce these standards, we have been accused of censorship. No. We simply set standards.
The most important words
And as for the First Amendment, that’s all about the government improperly trying to set parameters for publications.
It doesn’t factor into the Jones case.
Back in 1791, the most important words ever set to paper in the English language were crafted by the founders of this nation. James Madison originally wrote, “The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.”
That wording morphed through a careful editing process into those precious words we hold inviolable. “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
With that freedom comes responsibility.
Just as it is not responsible to yell “fire!” in a crowded theater, it is certainly not responsible comment to inflame or incite by posting obvious falsehoods that cause others to act inappropriately or even illegally.
Sophisticated and community-minded publishers know that — and choose what they print accordingly.
What it says
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
— First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted Dec. 15, 1791