Free Speech News Round Up 5 | July 7, 2019

I am traveling the west coast this week and had to delay the news round-up from last week. So here is one for two weeks! I'll also be making up for the delay with a lot of content when I return to Virginia next week. In Free Speech News this week, we have a wonderful op-ed by sci-fi writer Cody Doctorow, a scathing report about how tech companies fail women artists, another lawsuit over censorship in prisons, and the censorship of a TV interview with Pakistan's former President.

Cody Doctorow Tells Us What We Should Already Know - Tech Monopolies Need to be Broken Up

In an op-ed for the New York Times, science-fiction writer Cody Doctorow presented his argument for what should be done about big tech giants.1 At the request of citizens and governments the world over, tech companies are cracking down on speech on their platforms. That drive, Doctorow argues, empowers tech monopolies rather than actually eliminating hate speech, terrorist content, and the like. Rather, he says we need to seriously implement antitrust actions against social media and other tech giants, before it's too late.

His argument is strong, and similar to one made by other commentators like David Kaye. Antitrust enforcement would certainly be a step in the right direction, but antitrust requires eternal vigilance. As Doctorow notes, the current tech monopolies grew out of competitive market arrangements, so returning social media to competitive markets will ultimately lead to monopolies once again. Those monopolies lobby to prevent their break-up, making it hard to enforce needed antitrust legislation. The long-term solution is to not have monopolies at all — and that can only be accomplished with alternatives to corporate capitalism.

Report Documents Censorship Against Online Women Artists

FreeMuse, an international organization dedicated to artistic freedom documented patterns of censorship against women artists online.2 Through 16 interviews with leading artists, FreeMuse highlight the challenges that women face online when they engage in controversial, political, or challenging speech – and even when they do not.

One recurring problem is that social media platforms do not effectively distinguish between artistic nudity and pornography. This has lead to a number of prominent women artists being censored on Facebook and Instagram. The report makes multiple recommendations touching on this issue, but the crux of it is the following:

Facebook should review its nudity policy in particular so that their platforms can enable artists, their audience and everyone to enjoy arts and cultural expression while respecting international human rights standards. The company should review this policy in consultation with artists, arts communities, women’s rights groups and experts in the field of freedom of artistic expression

This seems like much needed reform, but it does leave the primary question – what should Facebook's nudity policy be? – unanswered. The groups mentioned in the recommendation seem like good ones to involve in the discussion, but what sort of guidelines might we expect them to develop? The question of what constitutes obscenity and what constitutes art has been a perennial one in the history of censorship. No matter how the line is drawn, the recommendation here ultimately leaves enforcement up to Facebook.

It brings up a concern that Doctorow raised in his op-ed:

But if you want to write something about how the platforms and government legislation can’t tell the difference between sex trafficking and sex, nudity and pornography...Any one of those keywords will give the filters an incurable case of machine anxiety

The other major problem the report identified was the targeted harassment of women artists online. When artists publish provocative or challenging artwork, a torrent of abuse from men (usually threatening) and women (usually shaming) rushes in. The result is that women censor themselves online and off in an attempt to stay safe. Media reporting on the issue increases the visibility of the artwork and thus increases the harassment. Describing her experience of harassment, Marifat Davlatova said:

I received threats of a sexual nature, threats of rape, also with threats that they will kill me; they will burn me; they will hang me; they will beat me with stones. I was called by various obscene words. I ignored the messages, did not delete them. And I also received messages of this kind. ‘Such a woman as you disgrace our nation’, ‘you are an enemy of the people’, ‘woman of the night’

This is not a “marketplace of ideas” in which people are holding a rational debate; real people are being credibly threatened with violence. The end result is self-censorship and a smaller, not larger, set of ideas to debate.

ACLU and Howard Center Sue Michigan Department of Corrections Over Book Ban

In 2000, the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) banned Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks in their facilities.3 Book censorship is commonplace in American prisons, usually justified on a vague concern over security. The Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University School of Law and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan sued last week to overturn that ban.

The Supreme Court does allow prisons to ban books and other content, but only on limited grounds. The major case in this regard is Turner v. Safley. According to the letter send by the Howard Center and the ACLU:

In Turner, the Supreme Court stated that for a ban on a book to be constitutional, there must be a “‘valid, rational connection’ between a prison regulation and the legitimate governmental interest put forward to justify it.” The legitimate governmental interest must also “operate in a neutral fashion, without regard to the content of the expression.” Courts have consistently struck down prison bans on books touching upon racial topics, even texts advocating racial supremacy, as long as they do not advocate violence.

The complainants go on to argue that the book does not advocate “racial supremacy” as the MDOC claims. Further, they argue that the MDOC cannot ban the book even if it did advocate “racial supremacy.” Such advocacy is irrelevant to “legitimate governmental interest[s]” and therefore unconstitutional under Turner.

I have not read Fanon's book, however, given its apparently scandalous nature – and its message of black liberation – I will have to do so. Perhaps I'll do reviews of banned books in addition to reviews of books about banning.

Pakistani TV Pulls Interview with Former President

In international news, former Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari's recent interview with journalist Hamid Mir has been censored by the ruling government.4 Zardari, who ruled from 2008 to 2013, is part of the Pakistani People's Party (PPP), a center-left socialist party. It is unclear from the report what the interview was supposed to be about. As the ruling government is made up of PPP's rival, the centrist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI), the broadcast probably contained something against PTI's policies.

Media Matters for Democracy, the Pakistani free press and free expression group that brought the censorship to international attention, reported the following:

The broadcast of an interview of the former president (now) MNA Asif Ali Zardari conducted by the senior journalist Hamid Mir was taken-off air 3 minutes after it started broadcasting. Later, Hamid Mir’s own interview regarding the incident was blocked on Dawn TV. This blatant censorship of a significant voice from the parliamentary opposition demonstrates an alarming increase in anti-democratic values. Media Matters for Democracy stands in solidarity with Hamid Mir and asks the government to value and safeguard the constitutionally guaranteed media freedoms.

Hopefully, this will not portend such blatant censorship in the future.