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The Tension Between Online Hate Speech and Preserving Free Speech

In clamping down on access to social media platforms by conspiracy theorists, white supremacists and domestic terrorists, we need to protect our truly marginalized citizens' ability to speak truth to power.

My long-ago experiences directing public access television and digital equity programs have given me insights into the present-day controversy over banning conspiracy theorists, white supremacists and domestic terrorists from online platforms. Public officials must ensure as they turn up the heat on social media platform owners and require that they be more accountable that they do not threaten ordinary citizens' free speech or limit public access to technologies the public needs to function in today's society. This is particularly true for those living at the margins.

The debates we are having today harken back to the early 1980s, when I served as the manager of several cable access stations and channels on Atlanta's cable system. These platforms were referred to as PEG (public, educational and government) channels, and they were required by local governments in exchange for the companies being allowed to use the public right-of-way to string or bury cable.

In some regards, PEG was a forerunner of the Internet inasmuch as these local channels allowed residents, free of charge and uncensored, to produce or schedule (if they held the rights to the content) programs of their choices.

As should have been expected with a medium as wide open as PEG, it was only a matter of time before someone tested the limit of our policies. One day a resident from an organization affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan brought us several episodes of a program produced by its national organization and demanded that we schedule it uncensored. If we refused, the resident threatened to sue the station for censorship and violation of his First Amendment rights. It was not clear to us whether or not there was even a First Amendment issue at play, but PEG was mandated under the franchise agreement with a local government and we did not have a policy that specifically banned violent or racist subject matters, only content related to lotteries, obscenity, advertising and fundraising.

We found ourselves in a dilemma. We knew the content of the Klan shows would be hurtful to many and possibly could provoke violence, but we also felt that if we got on the path to censoring unpopular ideas or content which a significant number of viewers found objectionable, we might also prevent important ideas, perspectives and information from ever being presented.

After much debate, we decided to schedule the offensive programming with the inclusion of a disclaimer at the beginning of the show that warned the audience of the racist and derogatory content. We also scheduled the programs after 10 p.m., a time when impressionable kids might less likely be watching cable. While taking these steps of precaution quieted some, many still believed that we should not have scheduled the programs at all. But we feared that once censorship began, it could easily swirl out of control.

On the Klan show, for example, we also faced a danger that there would be a demand from extremely conservative viewers for us to stop telecasting programs that depicted protests by racial minorities against injustices in society. While we considered the legitimate protests of minorities who have been historically discriminated against differently than those of white supremacists promoting violence against Blacks and Jews, we knew there were some who would try to conflate the two.

We also knew that oftentimes in the past, when our government clamped down in the name of national security or protecting the homeland, it was minorities and progressive organizations that received the brunt of repression. That was certainly the case, for instance, with COINTELPRO, a series of covert and illegal projects conducted by the FBI from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s that trampled on First Amendment rights.

Nevertheless, with all of those considerations in mind, I believed then, and still believe today, that networks like cable of 40 years back and the Internet today should remain as open as possible, both technologically and content-wise. Unlike traditional media — with its gatekeepers, dearth of programming diversity and commercial advertising constricting programming to the lowest common denominator — cable access and the new digital technologies of today hold the best hope for innovation, vibrancy and advancing democracy.

My experience with the KKK program provides a unique lens, a historical perspective into dealing with the purveyors of hate speech, but the question remains about how best to address violent white supremacists today, particularly those egged on by a former U.S. president. First, let's make it clear that, unlike the owners of commercial platforms, public officials have limited control over the uses and content of the Internet, a far cry from the power that local government officials had in the past to regulate cable television. But public officials do have bully pulpits and the power to call social media owners before powerful legislative committees and interrogate them. They should make better use of these points of leverage. Then there's the Federal Communications Commission and state telecommunications commissions that have some degree of regulatory oversight that could come into play.

What is most precious, though, about the Internet and public access television before it is that these media have provided a way for historically and truly marginalized citizens to speak truth to power. Let's keep it that way.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.


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