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Sep 15 2012

US softening stand on free speech rights?

Jonathan Turley points to a disturbing sign that the Obama administration is softening its defense of free speech rights in the wake of the backlash over the Mohammed film. He quotes reports that say that the Justice Department has asked YouTube to ‘review’ the film.

Whatever one might think of the merits of the film or the motives of its makers, they seem to be well within their rights to make it. But the First Amendment guarantees of free speech apply restrictions only to the actions of government and its agencies and not to private entities and YouTube can yank the film if it wants. As a result, the government can use its heavy influence to ‘lean’ on private organizations to take actions that it cannot do directly. As Turley says,

The latest White House move appears to be an effort to get YouTube to remove the video without taking responsibility for expressly asking for the removal. For civil libertarians, the announcement leaves an uneasy — and all-too-familiar — feeling with this Administration. The White House has repeated compromised on civil liberties in favor of political advantage in areas like torture, immunity, and surveillance policies.

The request from the White House reflects the same dishonest approach of some of our closest allies who refused to punish the Danish cartoonists while then quietly cracking down on anti-religious speech. The correct and only answer is that he filmmaker has a right to express his views of Muhammad and Islam. Muslims have a right to respond in kind. However, we cannot allow murderous mobs to turn this into a debate over free speech. These mobs are in countries that have long killed and arrested those who speak out against their beliefs. We cannot yield to such demands.

People who try to appease the sensitivities of religious groups tend to think that there is some clear line that can be drawn about what can be said without causing offense. This is an illusion. The ore one panders to these sensitivities, the bolder they get in their demands. The practices of theocratic states provide enough examples.

16 comments

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  1. 1
    Chiroptera

    …and YouTube can yank the film if it wants.

    Is that true? YouTube has a public “terms of use.” Are there legal or civil repercussions if YouTube pulls a video that doesn’t violate its terms of use?

    Even if the terms of use give YouTube absolute authority to interpret the terms of use, or even has a clause that, at the end of the day, gives YouTube complete discretion to pull anything it wants, would there be precedent in law that, in fact, limits what a public venue like YouTube can do in practice?

    I’m not a lawyer; in fact, I’m pretty ignorant about the law concerning whether YouTube can really “yank the film if it wants.”

  2. 2
    Chiroptera

    Oh, and in regards to the title of this post:

    I don’t see this as the “softening” its stance on free speech.

    First, considering the reaction to the film, I don’t see it as unreasonable that the Administration ask YouTube to look into the matter. I don’t know whether or not I’d do it if I were President, but I wouldn’t fault another President from making this decision.

    Second, if the Administration is putting pressure on YouTube beyond just asking, well, the US government doesn’t exactly have a stellar record on free speech issues (except when a foreign government is putting pressure on groups that the US finds in its interest to protect), so this still wouldn’t be a “softening.”

  3. 3
    slc1

    Well, Youtube seems to have no trouble deleting files which it considers pornographic. Their definition of pornographic seems to include almost anything that someone somewhere might find offensive.

  4. 4
    jasmyn

    YouTube changed their policy months ago to say that videos that could offend religious people could be pulled. I was dismayed when it happened. As far as I know, that hasn’t changed. I’d be shocked if they kept the video up.

  5. 5
    Anonymous Atheist

    Pretty good news so far – despite a history of lower-profile trigger-happy takedowns, they’re not giving in on this one, at least for most of the world:
    http://www.boston.com/business/technology/2012/09/15/google-says-won-take-down-anti-muslim-clip/cjAieQqOWz2js1N8xfAtkL/story.html

    Google is refusing a White House request to take down an anti-Muslim clip on YouTube, but is restricting access to it in certain countries.

    The White House said Friday that it had asked YouTube to review whether the video violated its terms of use. Google owns YouTube, the online video sharing site.

    YouTube said in a statement Friday that the video is widely available on the Web and is ‘‘clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube.’’

    While the protests intensified over the video, YouTube blocked access to the clip in Libya and Egypt. YouTube cited ‘‘the very sensitive situations’’ in those two countries. Later YouTube also blocked access to the video in India and Indonesia after their governments told Youtube the video broke their laws.

    In its Friday statement, YouTube said that outside of Libya, Egypt, India and Indonesia, the video will remain on its website.

  6. 6
    plutosdad

    I’ve never considered Obama to be big on the 1st amendment. From his stance on campaign finance to when he tried to not allow FOX in the press pool, to Holder’s going after whistleblowers like no president ever has before, charging more whistleblowers than all presidents before him combined. But the turning point for me was on Oct 1 2009 (it’s my sister’s birthday which is how I remember) he gave a speech to the UN calling for law to stop insulting religion.

    oh here i found some links for the last one: http://www.volokh.com/2009/10/01/is-the-obama-administration-supporting-calls-to-suppress-supposed-hate-speech/

    So he was talking like this 3 years ago, it’s no surprise he would follow up on it now. Of course he is hindered by the law, but he could certainly try to influence Youtube’s decisions.

    In fact, the 1st and 4th amendments are where I think Obama has a worse record than Bush.

  7. 7
    Nathan & the Cynic

    Youtube is part of Google, which is a private company. Free speech on their site is totally at their discretion.

  8. 8
    jamesskaar

    if the argument could be made that the ‘reaction’ was expected, even intended, the freedom of speech question ends at, could this be an instance of inciting law breaking? i’m led to understand that encouraging someone to break the law, especially violently, is highly illegal, the video, being pulled or not wouldn’t matter, they could face legal troubles. even ‘worse’, the film makers could require detention for their own safety… ‘if they know where you are, they may riot and/or bomb the area, possibly killing children and old ladies, it’s not safe to let you out till you’re no longer a risk. pity, it may be a LOOONG time’.

    i’d normally ignore this kind of stuff, but the guy put the lives of the actors at risk, 80 actors could have been killed because he redubbed it.

  9. 9
    Chiroptera

    i’m led to understand that encouraging someone to break the law, especially violently, is highly illegal, the video, being pulled or not wouldn’t matter, they could face legal troubles. even ‘worse’….

    This has been discussed over on Dispatches. According to those with legal experience, as long as the film makers did not explicitly call for people to engage in violence, they are covered by the First Amendment.

    On the other hand, some are now saying that the actors claim that their lines were overdubbed without their knowledge. If that is true, I wonder whether there could be some civil liability if the film makers knowingly put their safety at risk.

  10. 10
    smrnda

    In agreement on almost everything, though I kind of think that not allowing in or inviting Fox news is like not inviting the National Enquirer or Weekly World News – save the space for real journalists. A bad move politically though, since it feeds into the delusion of the Fox News crowd that they are legitimate journalists being silenced.

  11. 11
    smrnda

    The problem with the principal that free speech only means government non-interference with speech and not decisions by private companies or individuals about what speech they will and will not support with their $ is that it’s basically free speech for rich people. The emergence of things like youtube opened up free speech for people who would otherwise not be able to get much beyond a small, local audience. This works in increasing free speech only insofar as host companies take a pretty much hands off approach (intervening only in extreme cases where necessary) in regulating the content.

    On pornographic films on youtube, it’s not something I have looked for, but could a reason for them not being up be perhaps owing the the inability of youtube to verify that the performers were of age?

  12. 12
    Chiroptera

    The problem with the principal that free speech only means government non-interference with speech and not decisions by private companies or individuals about what speech they will and will not support with their $ is that it’s basically free speech for rich people.

    In certain cases, private companies are required to respect individuals’ First Amendment rights.

    Ed Brayton not too terribly long ago blogged about a country club that allowed the public to rent its facilities. Unfortunately for them, that ended up making their facilities a public venue, and they had far less leeway to select who can make use of their facilities than they had thought.

    When they found out that one of the groups that were going to use their facilities was an atheist group, they cancelled the contract. Not only was that a breech of contract, but they ran afoul of laws that prohibited discrimination based on religious viewpoints.

    That is why earlier on this thread I was wondering whether YouTube had limitations on what it could exclude on its site.

    -

    On pornographic films on youtube, it’s not something I have looked for, but could a reason for them not being up be perhaps owing the the inability of youtube to verify that the performers were of age?

    That doesn’t stop other free porn sites from operating.

    Or so I’ve heard.

  13. 13
    iknklast

    But…but…but…didn’t you know that it was CHRISTIANITY that’s being removed from the public square? Us mean ol’ atheists demand the removal of anything, anywhere, anytime that might even so much as hint there is a god and he is good!

    Once they stack the deck in their favor, no one will be able to speak to anyone again, because there is very little you can say without the possibility of offending someone, somewhere, based on religion. What if I say it’s a nice day, and don’t include a statement acknowledging some god’s role in giving us that nice day? I might offend someone…at least if they didn’t like me, and might want to shut me down. These things are often utilized with total inconsistency.

  14. 14
    Shawn Mann

    They could yank it on copyright, without the actual owner identified, who gave permission to up load the movie?

  15. 15
    jamesskaar

    yah, that’s what i was talking about, i think it was on tyt that i saw it, they claimed they were dubbed, might even have been an amazingatheist vid. the clips i saw, it looked like it might have even been a bit of a comedy before it was dubbed, a miserably done one though.

  16. 16
    Jared A

    Presumably if no one comes forward as owning the rights to the movie, then there is no cause to take it down based on copyright violations.

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