Opinion: First Amendment Triumphs Over N.Y.’s Attempt to Censor Online Hate Speech – Inside Sources

The internet changed the world, allowing people everywhere to access information, share their views and debate contentious topics. Social media, in particular, has given endless opportunities for people to form like-minded communities and discuss important issues.

But for as long as the internet has existed, there have also been efforts to censor content seen as “offensive” or “hateful.” These efforts have consistently been rejected in both the court of law and the court of public opinion. As a result, the internet has emerged as “the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed,” as the Supreme Court put it in striking down an early ban on “indecent” or “patently offensive” internet speech.

But none of this stopped New York state from passing a law last year to control speech online. In the aftermath of last May’s White supremacist mass shooting in Buffalo, state lawmakers enacted a misguided law that compels websites and apps to publish a policy for removing “humiliating” or “vilifying” speech and to create a way for users to complain about such speech. In other words, the law forces websites and apps to address online speech that someone, somewhere, finds “hateful.” Sites that refuse face fines and investigation.

New York’s vague and overbroad law stifles robust debate on the internet. And it was just the first step in a campaign aimed at bullying social media platforms into taking down content the state considers hateful.

That’s why the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression filed a lawsuit in December representing constitutional law professor Eugene Volokh and online platforms Rumble and Locals — all known for their commitment to free speech. And last week, a federal district court judge ruled that New York’s law violated the First Amendment and could not be enforced.

In issuing a preliminary injunction, Judge Andrew Carter of the Southern District of New York explained that the law unconstitutionally requires social media networks to disseminate the state’s message about the definition of hate speech, “a fraught and heavily debated topic.” In doing so, the law “chills the constitutionally protected speech of social media users” violating the First Amendment.

In his opinion, Judge Carter honed in on the law’s  reliance on vague terms like “vilify” and “humiliate.” He illustrated this with telling examples, writing, “For example, could a post using the hashtag ‘BlackLivesMatter’ or ‘BlueLivesMatter’ be considered ‘hateful conduct’ under the law? Likewise, could social media posts expressing anti-American views be considered conduct that humiliates or vilifies a group based on national origin?”

These good questions demonstrate the law’s inherent subjectivity. Whether speech “vilifies” or “humiliates” lies in the eye of the beholder. New York’s law would have left social media users uncertain whether their speech could be subject to removal if someone complained.

Speech one person sees as offensive may be viewed by another as foundational truth. That’s why the First Amendment ensures that even views that we despise can be expressed freely. In passing the now-enjoined law, New York seems to have forgotten the importance of a marketplace of diverse ideas — for thinking and learning, for innovation, and for personal and societal advancement.

This decision is a victory for the First Amendment that should be celebrated by everyone who would like to see the internet continue as a place where fraught issues can be discussed freely. And, it is hoped, would-be censors will think twice before attempting to regulate online speech next time.


1 thought on “Opinion: First Amendment Triumphs Over N.Y.’s Attempt to Censor Online Hate Speech – Inside Sources”

  1. Bottom line it’s up to us to take back our country from those who rule. We vote and elect them!
    The freedoms we have as being “We the People” telling government what it can and cannot do. However, if we don’t exercise our right by watching what our elected officials do; we forfeit our rights.
    Without clean – fair elections and a rising up of the citizens; all will be lost and the administrative state will have won.

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