Alex Jones and the Consequences of Free Speech
Alex Jones and those affiliated with his brand, “InfoWars”, are not nice people. They are, in fact, among the worst type of people. They are the type of people who promulgate the conspiracy theory of the Sandy Hook shooting being a hoax, prompting parents of slain kindergartners to sue for defamation. Alex Jones has at various points proffered the ideas that tampered water is turning the frogs gay, that there are child slaves on Mars, and a host of other lunacy that covers the spectrum from amusing to disturbing. Jones has a right to say all of that, and much more, within the confines of the law regardless of how offensive, ridiculous, or malicious any of it is. Such speech is clearly covered by the First Amendment.
What he does not have a right to, however, is freedom from the societal consequences of that speech.
After having flirted with bans, restrictions, and suspension on various platforms that carry Jones’ content, on Monday it appeared most of the biggest names in online providers have had enough. First came word Apple was removing podcasts from its iTunes store (although the InfoWars app is still available, as the app store apparently has different content rules.) Then the flood gates opened on Alex Jones: YouTube announced a permanent ban and removal of pages, Facebook followed suit, then Spotify, and the list keeps growing.
As vile as I find Jones to be, if his First Amendment rights were being violated I would defend him and his company. Unpopular speech is the only kind of speech that needs protection, after all. But that isn’t what is happening here. The internet is not the government –at least not yet — and Google, Facebook, and Apple might control vasts swaths of our lives, but they are not “Congress”, as in “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.” They are still private companies, no matter how ubiquitous to our lives they have become, and within the confines of the law can control their products to the extent they see fit.
While powerful, social media is still a voluntary endeavor. Though it can become an intensely personal forum sharing parts of our lives with the world, its true function is that of a business. Alex Jones knows this better than anyone, as these platforms are first and foremost an income stream to him. (When pressed in court during his divorce proceedings, Jones’s lawyer admitted as much when defending his client’s outrageous behavior, conceding that his client was “playing a character.”) Social media is a powerful platform for both personal and business use, but it is a luxury we chose to use, participate in, and share our lives on. It is a purchased good, and like any other purchased good is transacted by our own decision to buy it. It may be free or of no monetary cost, but when one clicks that terms of service agreement that most don’t read, you are paying for it none the less with your usage, information, and patronage.
Those insisting the First Amendment applies to social media companies policing their own product should be immediately asked the questions “Why, and who should enforce it?” If their answer to the first is “freedom of speech” press them on their meaning. Do they understand that “freedom of speech” is a right to be free of government making laws that amount to interference, not the preferences of each other, and certainly not from societal consequences of that speech? If their answer to the second is “the government,” you have a far greater threat to the First Amendment than any social media platform ban. The real threat to free speech isn’t big tech, or the Alex Joneses of the world, or even the government overstepping our rights; it is a populace that does not understand the right to free speech in the first place.