As the New Year dawns, we see two companies in the communications business, and two situations raising the question, is it ethical or unethical to allow someone to use your product or service to broadcast harmful speech?
They took different paths, and both are being criticized. One company is ethical, the other is not.
The ethical company is WordPress.
A few days ago it took down one of its sites, Bare Naked Islam, after The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) complained that the site promoted violence against Muslims, which it surely did. When Muslims placed comments on the site, Bare Naked Islam published the IP and e-mail addresses of the commenters and suggested reprisals. Nonetheless, because it was CAIR’s complaint that triggered the removal, WordPress was criticized mightily in the conservative blogosphere for doing a Comedy Central—censoring legitimate free speech out of fear of Muslim violence. There is a very large distinction, however, between abandoning free speech in response to threats, as Comedy Central did in the infamous “South Park” incident, and responding responsibly to a legitimate complaint.
The site regularly contained threats to Muslims, and targeted mosques for violence, including the comment “I want [Muslim] blood on my hands.” WordPress has no obligation to permit the creators of that kind of speech to use its platform, and the site was in violation of its User’s Agreement in other respects. CAIR had indeed complained, and, as groups will do, was taking bows for getting the site taken down, but that is like the cranky old man in the neighborhood saying that he “made the police stop those damn kids from shooting off fire-crackers in the park” because he made the first phone call. The police weren’t doing the old man’s bidding… they were doing their job. Drawing a comparison between Lowe’s abandoning “All-American Muslim” in response to CAIR’s threats and WordPress taking down a hate-site after being alerted by CAIR is unfair, but that is the line of attack WordPress got from the Right.
WordPress restored Bare Naked Islam while giving it a deadline to find another host, writing:
“After reviewing this case I’ve turned your site back on. Even though this is the third Term of Service issue with your blog, you should have been contacted before your site was suspended by our Terms of Service team. That said, publishing IP and email addresses of commenters with the invitation to harass them is a violation of our terms of service and your site harbors numerous examples that violate our ToS rule “does not contain threats or incite violence towards individuals or entities.” Given that this has been an ongoing issue I think you should find alternative hosting. I realize that it is the holidays and happy to give you until Jan 6 to do so. You can use the “offsite redirect” upgrade to ensure all of your links continue to work and your visitors get redirected. Finally although there was a press release from CAIR claiming to have been behind this I haven’t heard of them until today and as far as we can tell none of the ToS reports that caused the blog to be reviewed were from anyone involved with that organization. WordPress.com does not suspend blogs at the request of individuals or organizations, only for violations of our Terms of Service.”
WordPress did the responsible thing. Meanwhile, reading the comments on many of the sites that were offended by the take-down, I am forced to conclude that much of the indignation expressed by WordPress’s critics was motivated less by the love of free speech than by the fear and hatred of Muslims.
The unethical company is ABC Full Circle
ABC Full Circle owns and rents out the TSQ Digital giant screen that looms over New York City’s Times Square. For the News Years Eve celebration, which will be televised all over the world, it has sold time on its screen to the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), a well-funded group of anti-vaccine zealots best represented by Michele Bachmann’s outrageous statement that vaccines caused “retardation,” which had the glass-half-full benefit of finally convincing GOP voters that she was about as qualified to be President as Rosie O’Donnell. The NVIC will thus have a huge platform tonight for its campaign to frighten mothers out of giving their children vaccines against preventable diseases, by urging viewers to visit the group’s infamously misleading website, which is cleverly designed to look like that of a government agency.
There is no good time to be talking families out vaccinating their kids, but this is even a worse time than usual: the NYC Department of Health is worried an increase whooping cough, which can be deadly to infants but which was once largely eradicated due to an effective vaccine. If the NVIC convinces more families to avoid vaccines, more children will die. Simple as that.
ABC Full Circle, which is owned by Disney, had no obligation to allow ignorant hysterics to use its screen to interfere with effective public health measures. The opposite is true. It has an obligation not to aid and abet irresponsible, misleading and dangerous speech.
Let Jenny McCarthy wear a sandwich board in Times Square.
She has the right.
Happy New Year!