Herman: Where you don’t have the right to say whatever you want to say

Aug 14, 2018
Deborah Cannon
Alex Jones says being banned on social media, including YouTube and Facebook violates his rights under the First Amendment. 2017 DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Hello. Today, on a platform provided to me by a private employer with rules for what’s published on said platform, I’d like to share with you something that several people have been sharing in recent days.

These are rules established for publishing on the website of another private, non-governmental entity here in Austin. Here it is, copied and pasted directly from the website where it lives:

“You will not post anything libelous, defamatory, harmful, threatening, harassing, abusive, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, racially or ethnically objectionable, or otherwise illegal. You will not make threats to other users or people not associated with the site. If you violate these rules, your posts and/or user name will be deleted.”

And there’s more:

“Remember: you are a guest here. It is not censorship if you violate the rules and your post is deleted. All civilizations have rules and if you violate them you can expect to be ostracized from the tribe.”

RELATED: Bans don’t seem to be lessening reach of Alex Jones, InfoWars

Pretty reasonable, I’d say, and not far from what your elders should have taught you while you were maturing toward responsible adulthood. The above is not a violation of the First Amendment (which seems oddly misunderstood by some) and it’s not some evil form of censorship.

And perhaps the oddest thing about those rules is where they’re found: infowars.com. Yes, that infowars.com, the website of Alex Jones, our local conspiracy theorist par excellence who long ago went worldwide with his fringe and bellicose nonsense.

Jones seems to be what we used to call (and maybe still do) an excitable boy. He labors under and is belabored by a something in his head that tells him every day is a life-and-death struggle against evil forces amassed to take over the world and do bad things to him and his similarly afflicted followers.

Whatever.

We are free to think whatever we want to think in our heads. It’s communicating it outside our heads that becomes somewhat dicey and dangerous.

Anyway, Jones has parlayed his concerns into a large audience around the world. Seems that lots of folks share his daily existential concerns and like to hear him talk about them. OK, I guess. We’re all free to talk about whatever we want to talk about. But you have no right to do it on somebody else’s dime.

As noted above, folks who spend their dimes to establish platforms have the right to set rules for publishing on those platforms. We know that Jones agrees with that. We know that because Jones does that.

So with that in mind, I sensed some dissonance when Jones and followers carped when his particular brand of spewed hatred was yanked from several major social media platforms that can become decidedly anti-social when folks like Jones jump on. YouTube, Facebook and others said Jones’ stuff violated their terms of use.

Heck, his stuff violates his own terms of use on his own website.

So, it seems, it’s time for the periodic refresher course on the First Amendment and free speech in America.

Here’s the deal: You have a right to say what you want. But you have no right to require other people to publish what you say. You can’t demand to publish on somebody else’s publication. There are no rights involved in that transaction, except perhaps the publication owner’s right to decide what’s published on it.

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And right here is where it’s important for you to read (re-read, I hope) the amendment our founders so wisely saw fit to make the first one, when they realized the U.S. Constitution they had just cobbled together needed some immediate addenda:

“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.”

Pretty good. Thanks again, founders. You did a great job (though a little more attention to the eternal abomination that is slavery would have been helpful). In my profession, I count on the First Amendment each and every day, especially when a temporary leader of our nation proclaims that some who depend on that amendment are public enemies.

Writ plain, the First Amendment applies only to governmental control of free speech. It has nothing to do with what owners of private publications choose to publish or not publish.

During my years in newspapering, I’ve heard a complaint or two or 3,984 from people who’ve claimed their First Amendment free speech rights were violated when the newspaper refused to publish their letter to the editor or yanked their online comment.

Those folks often complain they’ve been unfairly or, in some cases, illegally censored. “First Amendment!” they scream. Nope. They were edited, not censored. That’s what the owner of a publication does: edit, not censor.

Most publications have rules for publishing. To see some pretty good ones, see the ones above copied and pasted from Jones’ infowars.com.

I couldn’t have said it better myself and am happy to reprint them on my employer’s dime.