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Going To The Mats For Free Speech Sometimes Means Letting Trolls Go Unpunished


It’s a classic Internet argument.

“This is a danger to free speech!”

“No, it’s not! The government isn’t shutting anyone up!”

I’ve got good news. Both can be right. There are plenty of things that endanger free-wheeling and robust speech without the government getting involved at all. A helpful way to think about it is the First Amendment’s protections are a suggestion for the least a free society should do to protect and foster free speech, not an accomplishment for which we should engage in vigorous back-patting.

This is the crux of an argument one of my colleagues, Kirsten Powers, is having with seemingly the entire Internet.

It All Started With a Wrestlemania Meme

In the late-night hours of July 4, CNN published a story about the Reddit user who created a video suddenly infamous for being tweeted by the president of the United States. We live in strange times, so this Redditor’s meme was a video of President Donald Trump beating down a wrestling opponent with a CNN logo superimposed over his face.

Andrew Kaczynski, a reporter who made his name digging up long-forgotten, newsworthy videos of prominent politicians, used those same Internet sleuthing skills to track down the user who made the meme. We live in strange times, so the subject of this national news story’s handle was HanA**holeSolo, and his real name was not included in the story.

Here is the passage that addressed that decision, which set off alarm bells in many quarters of the Internet, uniting left and right for a brief moment on this Independence Day in their chorus of “WUTs.”

“CNN is not publishing ‘HanA**holeSolo’s’ name because he is a private citizen who has issued an extensive statement of apology, showed his remorse by saying he has taken down all his offending posts, and because he said he is not going to repeat this ugly behavior on social media again. In addition, he said his statement could serve as an example to others not to do the same.

CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of this change.”

It seemed to imply that HanA**holeSolo’s name was being withheld only because he agreed to stop engaging in speech the reporter or CNN didn’t like, and should his behavior change, this mercy could be removed. I am employed by CNN, but don’t speak for them. Kaczynski said the passage was only meant to communicate he had made no deal with the Redditor to withhold his name, and CNN backed him up.

‘CNN decided not to publish the name of the Reddit user out of concern for his safety. Any assertion that the network blackmailed or coerced him is false,’ the network said in the statement. ‘The user, who is an adult male, not a 15-year-old boy, apologized and deleted his account before ever speaking with our reporter. CNN never made any deal, of any kind, with the user. In fact, CNN included its decision to withhold the user’s identity in an effort to be completely transparent that there was no deal.’

But the whole affair raises a question about how we treat Internet trolls, when we out them, and at what cost. Powers has been in verbal fisticuffs over this question with honest interlocutors and abusive trolls alike for days.

‘The Internet Is Not Proportional’

Like Powers, I embrace the term “speech nut.” Like Powers, I wrote a book on dangers to free speech. But I disagree with her on this issue precisely because I care about free speech, not because I care about HanA**holeSolo in particular. Powers argues:

This man’s speech was completely free of any restrictions. What his defenders are objecting to is him being accountable for what he wrote and posted. Holding a person accountable for what they say is not a violation of their free speech, unless the entity doing it is the government.

There are consequences to our speech. If a person wants to be in good standing in society, then they perhaps should not post racist garbage on the Internet for fun.

HanA**holeSolo isn’t some great modern-day pamphleteer whom we should ensure at all costs can keep delivering us (and the president) hot memes from his den of racist sh*tposters. He’s not, and the fact that the White House finds inspiration in these corners of the Internet is newsworthy. Some of his other creations, including a a composite with Stars of David next to the Jewish CNN employees, are truly disgusting.

But media should be very careful about when they expose private citizens for the sin of political speech. They should be especially careful not to imply that content of political speech that crosses a big media entity is the reason for exposure. The media don’t owe every troll on the Internet his or her anonymity, but doing disproportionate warfare with them can endanger and chill the speech of others.

As Vox’s German Lopez put it simply, “The Internet is not proportional.”

“The problem here is that the internet is not proportional. People wouldn’t merely react to this guy making some offensive remarks on the internet by making some offensive remarks to him. They would react as the internet has reacted before to these kinds of situations — with potentially thousands of hateful messages, death threats, attempts to get him fired, and harassment not just against him but also his family. Lines would quickly be crossed.”

And it’s not just the Internet that’s not proportional. Media has shown an inability to gauge its coverage of the online speech of private citizens.

Remember the #HasJustineLanded worldwide news furor over a single tweet or the week-long news cycle about a Republican staffer’s private Facebook post critical of the Obama daughters? The “offenses” of these women shouldn’t have made them subjects of worldwide infamy, but they did. I am sympathetic to good, rational people who want to engage in online discussion, but put up barriers between it and their identities.

Again to Powers: “We are not obligated to protect a person’s identity so they can spread and foment racial hatred. They should take the hood off and own their behavior. Their targets do not have the luxury of being anonymous, after all. So why should they?”

This all started with a Wrestlemania meme, not “targeting” of anyone. Although HanA**holeSolo’s other posts were anti-Semitic and racist, the one that made him newsworthy was well within bounds of American political discourse. It wasn’t a threat of violence. It wasn’t incitement. It was a goofy metaphor speech nuts shouldn’t want to discourage Americans from making.

Let Some Guilty Go Free to Preserve Freedom for All

As to the question of anonymity, there are plenty of reasons that luxury shouldn’t be jettisoned, even though it empowers some bad people to say bad things. I’m a public figure. I put my real name with what I say online. I chose this way of doing things, and many private citizens do the same in their social media lives. It can be a helpful governor of online behavior that otherwise gets very dehumanizing and nasty. I’ve been subjected to plenty of it myself.

But we shouldn’t hold every private citizen with a Facebook account to the standards of a pundit or politician, who chose the strictures and exposure under which they speak.

Even if you do think a Wrestlemania clip is an out-of-bounds political statement, or that HanA**holeSolo should suffer for his other speech, consider this. Our justice system, though imperfect, attempts to value the presumption of innocence. This presumption is so important to us that we let the guilty go free so we don’t wrongly convict the innocent.

A similar principle should apply to a culture of free speech. We let some truly vicious trolls and bad behavior by random Internet people go unpunished so we don’t catch the innocent in a net meant for miscreants. In extreme cases, like incitement and threats, they must face consequences.

But this all started with a Wrestlemania meme. Even if I don’t love it, and even if it was created by a guy who literally named himself A**hole, I’ll go to the mats for it.