Internet law attorney, Aaron Kelly, answers questions about free speech, its limits and the Internet.
What do speech, press, religion and petition freedoms afford us?
It’s a big question, but in short, the freedoms to speech, press, religion and petition guarantee that each citizen can express themselves safely and openly. It means we can speak up when we disagree with authorities; it means we can practice a religion of our own choosing without fear of persecution; it means that our media is able to report on government mistakes; it means we can gather, and en masse, let our collective voice be heard about things we’re unhappy about.
Are There Limits To Freedom Of Speech?
There are limits to freedom of speech, and those limits boil down to public safety and honesty. The classic example of unprotected speech is screaming fire in a crowded room when there is no fire, as the welfare of the citizenry becomes paramount. Protests require permits to ensure civil life; permits also ensure that proper safety requirements are met.
Freedom of Speech and Religion Can Be A Mine Field
As for religion, well, that’s a little more nuanced, as many religions have beliefs that are contradictory to secular law – but one thing is for sure, the courts do not like deciding about religious matters. Which may actually be a big news story pretty soon, as there are a couple of Scientology lawsuits in the works, wherein a few judges may have to walk that freedom of religion vs. secular law tight-rope.
As for Internet law and our basic freedoms of expression, the big issue these days is the matter of online defamation. People are less careful about what they say online, which often results in defamation lawsuits. The anonymity the Internet affords presents another layer of litigation, as you first have to go through the process of uncovering the legal name of the defaming party…and many people use freedom of speech as a defense during this stage to block their name from entering the public record.
How long have people been trying to censor online content?
Easy, since the beginning. Well, maybe not Tim Burners Lee beginning, but for arguments sake, let’s just say that once the public merged onto “the information super highway” (remember when that was the phrase), people started to censor. In the early years, copyright infringement and defamation worked as effective litigation-based strategy for online censorship. And back then, before the DMCA, website operators were not protected….so yes, it happened quite a bit – and still does today.
What steps are needed to prevent online censorship?
I wish I had the answer! If I did, I’d be living la vida Gates. No, but in all seriousness, it’s a complicated question – as there are so many groups to take into account. Generally speaking, what we need are laws that both allow for Internet freedom and foster innovation.
SOPA and PIPA = BAD
SOPA and PIPA were terrible; it would have been un-American to pass either. At this point in the game, instead of creating a flurry of new bills with the stated goal of “protecting American jobs” that really do nothing more than censor, we need to tweak extant Internet-related bills.
The more people start asking questions about online censorship, and voicing their displeasure with bad laws, the less likely a terrible bill will sneak by us. As the old saying goes, “power to the people.”
What are some common censorship targets?
Depends on where in the world you are. I wrote a story a couple of weeks ago about a guy who was charged with defamation for talking unkindly about the King of Thailand online. Now, nobody’s going to be jailed in the United States for criticizing the government (threatening government officials, however, will land you in hot water). Heck, many of the most successful Web outlets were built on government criticism. In the U.S., it’s mainly copyright infringement and defamation that lead to “censorship” issues.
Are Celebrities The Biggest Proponents of Censorship?
I was reading a report today about a recent online “censorship” case, involving the Twitter leak of Beyonce’s and Andre3000’s new single. An injunction was granted, Twitter complied, and the song was taken down. Some users are calling it censorship.
But the punch line is that it was actually BigBoi – Andre 3000’s partner – that was one of the people who “infringed” the song on Twitter. Which, well, just opens up another can of cultural-trend worms regarding the use of the Internet as a means of celebrity promotion, which then brings the whole legal idea of “right of publicity” to the fore again.
So, I guess it’s fair to say that celebrities may be the #1 culprit of wanting to censor the Internet these days. But, can you blame them? After all, their brands are their names and work. Not to sound like the flip-flopper, but there are two sides to the coin. It really does come down to a case by case assessment. Artists trying to protect their work, cool. Authorities trying to use laws to keep information of import from the public, not cool.