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Facebook is once again in the center of controversy regarding the moral responsibilities of webhosts. This latest debate focuses on whether Facebook should police Holocaust denial groups on its network. Proponents of banning such groups argue that even when they don’t call for violence and racism, these groups are inherently hateful. Facebook has taken the stance, however, that so long as the groups do not advocate violence or acts of hatred, they should be allowed to express their views. The question is, where should Facebook, and social networking sites like it, draw the line?
Brian Cuban, Dallas attorney and brother of Mark Cuban, has argued that since Holocaust denial is illegal in some countries, these groups violate Facebook’s terms of service. “There is no First Amendment right to free speech in the private realm,” Cuban said. “This isn’t a freedom-of-speech issue. Facebook is free to set the standard they wish.” Deborah Lipstadt, the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, argues further that social networking sites like Facebook foster deniers. “People who are drawn to Holocaust denial tend to be fringe kind of people who might not otherwise be able to find a group, but this way they can find other like-minded people.”
On the other side of the debate, Facebook has taken the position that its role is to block groups that incite violence and hatred, but not to silence unpopular beliefs. Ezra Callahan, a Facebook employee and member of the Jewish faith, explained his and the company’s position in a lengthy note on the site. In contrast to Cuban’s argument that the First Amendment is not an issue in the private realm, Callahan points out that he is proud to work for “a company that holds free speech as its core ideal…, even if the end result is the occasional presence of content that I find personally outrageous and offensive.” Callahan further argues, “Silencing stupid people is not how you make stupid people go away…. You do not combat ignorance by trying to cover up that ignorance exists. You confront it head on. Facebook will do the world no good by trying to become its thought police.”
When I initially read about this debate, I came down firmly on the side of those arguing that such groups should be banned. Holocaust denial = bad. Done. End of story. But after reading Callahan’s post, and others like it, I realized there are two persuasive arguments against such hard line action. First, who draws that line? I think the majority of us can agree that the Holocaust happened and it was an atrocity that should not be forgotten, and certainly not denied. But can a majority of us agree that abortion is or is not murder? One could make a similar argument that pro-choice groups on Facebook are inciting violence by encouraging the murder of unborn children. Can a majority of us agree on whether or not gay marriage should be legalized? One could argue that anti groups are discriminatory and encouraging hatred. I simply cannot agree with Cuban that freedom of speech, a cornerstone of the Bill of Rights, can be so easily dismissed because we are in the private sector. While I also vehemently disagree with denial groups, it is that very right to disagree that is being protected here.
Second, as Professor Lipstadt pointed out, the Internet provides a global community for extremists who would not normally find camaraderie in their local community. However, the key difference with Facebook and other social networking sites is the lack of anonymity. These “fringe kind of people” may create or visit Holocaust denial or other antisemitic websites without their friends, family, or coworkers ever knowing. On the other hand, when they join a group on Facebook, the news feed announces their beliefs to all of their Facebook friends. There is an accountability that comes with joining these groups on a social networking site. The publicity of joining a group like this (or any other discriminatory group), as well as the inevitable backlash from friends, may encourage a person to reconsider his or her opinions in a way that a private visit to a hateful website would not.
I can’t say that I entirely agree with Facebook’s decision to refuse to take down these groups. Yet I can see its reasoning, and I respect its decision. Freedom of speech, however distasteful that speech may be, is a foundation of our country’s beliefs. Honoring that belief, even in the lack of a constitutional mandate, is an admirable goal.
– Rachel Perkins
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