Whose Free Speech Is This White House Committed to Protecting?

The shooters who killed 51 people at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand wanted the world to witness their carnage, and so they live-streamed it on Facebook.

Fewer than 200 people watched the live stream during the attack, which Facebook said it removed 29 minutes after it began. But within 24 hours, users had attempted to re-upload the video onto Facebook more than 1.5 million times. About 300,000 of those videos slipped through and were published on the site before being taken down by the site’s content-moderation teams and systems designed to automatically remove blacklisted content.

In addition, one of them left behind a 74-page manifesto online, using language that is common among white nationalists.

In response, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macro organized a “Christchurch Call.”

The Christchurch Call is a commitment by Governments and tech companies to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online. It rests on the conviction that a free, open and secure internet offers extraordinary benefits to society. Respect for freedom of expression is fundamental. However, no one has the right to create and share terrorist and violent extremist content online.

The document they created, while nonbinding, has been signed by 18 countries (Australia, Canada, the European Commission, France, Germany, Indonesia, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Jordan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Senegal, Spain, Sweden and Britain) and five tech firms (Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter). But the Trump administration, once again isolating the U.S. from the rest of the developed world, refused to join them, citing First Amendment concerns.

”We continue to be proactive in our efforts to counter terrorist content online while also continuing to respect freedom of expression and freedom of the press,” the White House told the Post. “Further, we maintain that the best tool to defeat terrorist speech is productive speech, and thus we emphasize the importance of promoting credible, alternative narratives as the primary means by which we can defeat terrorist messaging.”

That would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous. Since when has this president shown any respect for the “freedom of expression and freedom of the press?” He regularly shouts that the media is the enemy of the people, even as newsrooms are targeted by violent extremists. He also demonstrates that he doesn’t have even a basic understanding of the First Amendment.

President Trump has regularly called for news outlets that he doesn’t like to be investigated. He’s even done the same for comedy shows that make fun of him. In fact, he’s called for the FEC and FCC to investigate Saturday Night Live multiple times.

As for “promoting credible, alternative narratives,” I would simply point to this:

Far from joining with others to combat violent extremism online, Trump’s refusal to join the Christchurch Call came on the same day he launched a campaign asking people to share their stories about online censorship, an effort that was designed to combat attempts by social media companies to crack down on the use of their platforms by violent extremists.

This president couldn’t be more clear. He attacks the press at every opportunity and wants to protect the rights of violent extremists.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.