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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 4/25/18

Free Speech Online Is Under Fire

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No doubt you know who Alex Jones is and maybe you've spent some time doing one of the following:

  1. Wondering how we've gotten to the point where someone could peddle conspiracy theories (lies) for a living.
  2. Wondering if there's any way we could ban Jones from the media, given the fact that his statements have incited harassment and outright violence.
  3. Wondering if we should add another caveat to the First Amendment, something along the lines of, "Free speech shall not include flat-out lies under the guise of information or entertainment, or infotainment."

Jones is facing several defamation suits from the parents of a victim in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. If you were one of these parents, wouldn't you do the same? I know plenty of people who'd feel outright murderous if someone claimed they were lying about the death of their child. Jones has poured salt on a very painful wound by claiming that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax and that the parents are part of the conspiracy. The parents have received death threats, and according to the lawsuits, Jones' conspiracy theory has subjected them to "public and private hatred, contempt, and ridicule." They feel their reputations are ruined because of Jones.

Yet, Jones' lies are protected by the First Amendment to the extent that, if they are defamatory, he doesn't face criminal charges. He can face civil suits, but for whatever reason, nothing I'm seeing in my research indicates that defamation is a crime. HG.org says, "The First Amendment does not protect individuals from facing civil penalties if they defame another person through written or verbal communication." In other words, someone can personally take issue with false, slanderous words, but the government can't.

However, even for a simple civil proceeding, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff: according to Cornell Law School , for Jones to be guilty of defamation he has to know the statements he made were false. Will Jones claim he actually believes his conspiracy theory is true? And will he furthermore claim he's not responsible for the actions other people took as a result of words he spoke with the intent to tell "the truth"? How can the plaintiffs prove he knows the Sandy Hook shooting wasn't a conspiracy?

This is shaky ground and you can see why it's tough to make headway with the First Amendment in many defamation suits. It's also tough to tell whether Congress is infringing on freedom of speech with FOSTA . FOSTA stands for Fight Online Sex Trafficking. As of this writing, FOSTA is very recent. Congress was nearly unanimous in the passage of FOSTA, and that might seem like a good thing. Congress is finally agreeing on something, and that something is a bill meant to crack down on sex trafficking via internet. If a user of any online forum posts content that facilitates sex trafficking, the website on which they post is liable. This includes cases of prostitution. Already, Craigslist has removed the Personal Ads section because of FOSTA.

Any lawyer worth their salt will point out that prostitution is legal in some jurisdictions, such as Nevada. If someone from another state uses a site that's perfectly legal in Nevada to engage a prostitute, what then? And what if someone goes on Facebook and proclaims they're a prostitute, what then? Is Facebook liable for a statement of fact that leads a person from a state where prostitution is illegal to seek sex from a prostitute in a state where it's legal?

Basically, FOSTA is calling sites like Facebook and Craigslist potential houses of ill repute. We already knew they were, now it's just official. Now it's as if sites are a physical place where people make sex deals, even if they're not physical, per se.

Some confusion is bound to arise. If sites can be liable for statements that lead to sex trafficking, can't they be liable for certain forms of cyberbullying too? It's a rampant problem: in a survey, 27 percent of women in college reported they've been victims of cyberbullying, while 25 percent of middle and high school students said the same. Cyberbullying can take the form of threats, and if it's a threat that could actually result in physical harm or death, it's illegal. Plenty of people have dealt with death threats on Twitter, but that site is still running strong.

Returning to the Alex Jones case, a woman named Lucy Richards was jailed for 5 months for threatening one of the plaintiffs, Leonard Pozner. The judge who jailed Richards said that Richards would "not be permitted to access a list of conspiracy-based websites upon her release, including InfoWars. ... Ms. Richards' arrest and sentencing are an ominous reminder of the danger posed by Mr. Jones' continuing lies about the Plaintiffs' alleged role in faking Sandy Hook."

In this case, InfoWars, that house of infamy, sounds culpable of inciting Richards to threaten Pozner's physical well-being. If Jones loses the lawsuit to Pozner, this could set a loose precedent that a website can be held responsible for death threats. Granted, the lawsuit is against Alex Jones personally, not InfoWars. But isn't InfoWars included in this because it's Alex Jones' megaphone? Without the site, you would have no widespread conspiracy theory, therefore no death threats.

Looking at the FOSTA bill and the Alex Jones case, you could easily conclude that the internet is on shaky ground as a forum for expression. There are nine types of speech that aren't protected by the First Amendment. Once a forum is liable for its users' violations of the First Amendment, that makes a forum an actor, not a forum. If websites have to proceed as actors married to their users' words, they'll have to tread very lightly.

Plenty of us want to see Alex Jones go down. But do we want to see the internet wrapped in red tape? The time is coming when it will be. All it takes is an idiot like Jones to ruin it for the rest of us. Enjoy this forum while it lasts.

 

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