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[The following post was adapted from the International Center for Law & Economics White Paper “Polluting Words: Is There a Coasean Case to Regulate Offensive Speech?]

Words can wound. They can humiliate, anger, insult.

University students—or, at least, a vociferous minority of them—are keen to prevent this injury by suppressing offensive speech. To ensure campuses are safe places, they militate for the cancellation of talks by speakers with opinions they find offensive, often successfully. And they campaign to get offensive professors fired from their jobs.

Off campus, some want this safety to be extended to the online world and, especially, to the users of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. In the United States, this would mean weakening the legal protections of offensive speech provided by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (as President Joe Biden has recommended) or by the First Amendment and. In the United Kingdom, the Online Safety Bill is now before Parliament. If passed, it will give a U.K. government agency the power to dictate the content-moderation policies of social media platforms.

You don’t need to be a woke university student or grandstanding politician to suspect that society suffers from an overproduction of offensive speech. Basic economics provides a reason to suspect it—the reason being that offense is an external cost of speech. The cost is borne not by the speaker but by his audience. And when people do not bear all the costs of an action, they do it too much.

Jack tweets “women don’t have penises.” This offends Jill, who is someone with a penis who considers herself (or himself, if Jack is right) to be a woman. And it offends many others, who agree with Jill that Jack is indulging in ugly transphobic biological essentialism. Lacking Bill Clinton’s facility for feeling the pain of others, Jack does not bear this cost. So, even if it exceeds whatever benefit Jack gets from saying that women don’t have penises, he will still say it. In other words, he will say it even when doing so makes society altogether worse off.

It shouldn’t be allowed!

That’s what we normally say when actions harm others more than they benefit the agent. The law normally conforms to John Stuart Mill’s “Harm Principle” by restricting activities—such as shooting people or treating your neighbours to death metal at 130 decibels at 2 a.m.—with material external costs. Those who seek legal reform to restrict offensive speech are surely doing no more than following an accepted general principle.

But it’s not so simple. As Ronald Coase pointed out in his famous 1960 article “The Problem of Social Cost,” externalities are a reciprocal problem. If Wayne had no neighbors, his playing death metal at 130 decibels at 2 a.m. would have no external costs. Their choice of address is equally a source of the problem. Similarly, if Jill weren’t a Twitter user, she wouldn’t have been offended by Jack’s tweet about who has a penis, since she wouldn’t have encountered it. Externalities are like tangos: they always have at least two perpetrators.

So, the legal question, “who should have a right to what they want?”—Wayne to his loud music or his neighbors to their sleep; Jack to expressing his opinion about women or Jill to not hearing such opinions—cannot be answered by identifying the party who is responsible for the external cost. Both parties are responsible.

How, then, should the question be answered? In the same paper, Coase the showed that, in certain circumstances, who the courts favor will make no difference to what ends up happening, and that what ends up happening will be efficient. Suppose the court says that Wayne cannot bother his neighbors with death metal at 2 a.m. If Wayne would be willing to pay $100,000 to keep doing it and his neighbors, combined, would put up with it for anything more than $95,000, then they should be able to arrive at a mutually beneficial deal whereby Wayne pays them something between $95,000 and $100,000 to forgo their right to stop him making his dreadful noise.

That’s not exactly right. If negotiating a deal would cost more than $5,000, then no mutually beneficial deal is possible and the rights-trading won’t happen. Transaction costs being less than the difference between the two parties’ valuations is the circumstance in which the allocation of legal rights makes no difference to how resources get used, and where efficiency will be achieved, in any event.

But it is an unusual circumstance, especially when the external cost is suffered by many people. When the transaction cost is too high, efficiency does depend on the allocation of rights by courts or legislatures. As Coase argued, when this is so, efficiency will be served if a right to the disputed resource is granted to the party with the higher cost of avoiding the externality.

Given the (implausible) valuations Wayne and his neighbors place on the amount of noise in their environment at 2 a.m., efficiency is served by giving Wayne the right to play his death metal, unless he could soundproof his house or play his music at a much lower volume or take some other avoidance measure that costs him less than the $90,000 cost to his neighbours.

And given that Jack’s tweet about penises offends a large open-ended group of people, with whom Jack therefore cannot negotiate, it looks like they should be given the right not to be offended by Jack’s comment and he should be denied the right to make it. Coasean logic supports the woke censors!          

But, again, it’s not that simple—for two reasons.

The first is that, although those are offended may be harmed by the offending speech, they needn’t necessarily be. Physical pain is usually harmful, but not when experienced by a sexual masochist (in the right circumstances, of course). Similarly, many people take masochistic pleasure in being offended. You can tell they do, because they actively seek out the sources of their suffering. They are genuinely offended, but the offense isn’t harming them, just as the sexual masochist really is in physical pain but isn’t harmed by it. Indeed, real pain and real offense are required, respectively, for the satisfaction of the sexual masochist and the offense masochist.

How many of the offended are offense masochists? Where the offensive speech can be avoided at minimal cost, the answer must be most. Why follow Jordan Peterson on Twitter when you find his opinions offensive unless you enjoy being offended by him? Maybe some are keeping tabs on the dreadful man so that they can better resist him, and they take the pain for that reason rather than for masochistic glee. But how could a legislator or judge know? For all they know, most of those offended by Jordan Peterson are offense masochists and the offense he causes is a positive externality.

The second reason Coasean logic doesn’t support the would-be censors is that social media platforms—the venues of offensive speech that they seek to regulate—are privately owned. To see why this is significant, consider not offensive speech, but an offensive action, such as openly masturbating on a bus.

This is prohibited by law. But it is not the mere act that is illegal. You are allowed to masturbate in the privacy of your bedroom. You may not masturbate on a bus because those who are offended by the sight of it cannot easily avoid it. That’s why it is illegal to express obscenities about Jesus on a billboard erected across the road from a church but not at a meeting of the Angry Atheists Society. The laws that prohibit offensive speech in such circumstances—laws against public nuisance, harassment, public indecency, etc.—are generally efficient. The cost they impose on the offenders is less than the benefits to the offended.

But they are unnecessary when the giving and taking of offense occur within a privately owned place. Suppose no law prohibited masturbating on a bus. It still wouldn’t be allowed on buses owned by a profit-seeker. Few people want to masturbate on buses and most people who ride on buses seek trips that are masturbation-free. A prohibition on masturbation will gain the owner more customers than it loses him. The prohibition is simply another feature of the product offered by the bus company. Nice leather seats, punctual departures, and no wankers (literally). There is no more reason to believe that the bus company’s passenger-conduct rules will be inefficient than that its other product features will be and, therefore, no more reason to legally stipulate them.

The same goes for the content-moderation policies of social media platforms. They are just another product feature offered by a profit-seeking firm. If they repel more customers than they attract (or, more accurately, if they repel more advertising revenue than they attract), they would be inefficient. But then, of course, the company would not adopt them.

Of course, the owner of a social media platform might not be a pure profit-maximiser. For example, he might forgo $10 million in advertising revenue for the sake of banning speakers he personally finds offensive. But the outcome is still efficient. Allowing the speech would have cost more by way of the owner’s unhappiness than the lost advertising would have been worth.  And such powerful feelings in the owner of a platform create an opportunity for competitors who do not share his feelings. They can offer a platform that does not ban the offensive speakers and, if enough people want to hear what they have to say, attract users and the advertising revenue that comes with them. 

If efficiency is your concern, there is no problem for the authorities to solve. Indeed, the idea that the authorities would do a better job of deciding content-moderation rules is not merely absurd, but alarming. Politicians and the bureaucrats who answer to them or are appointed by them would use the power not to promote efficiency, but to promote agendas congenial to them. Jurisprudence in liberal democracies—and, especially, in America—has been suspicious of governmental control of what may be said. Nothing about social media provides good reason to become any less suspicious.

In his recent concurrence in Biden v. Knight, Justice Clarence Thomas sketched a roadmap for how to regulate social-media platforms. The animating factor for Thomas, much like for other conservatives, appears to be a sense that Big Tech has exhibited anti-conservative bias in its moderation decisions, most prominently by excluding former President Donald Trump from Twitter and Facebook. The opinion has predictably been greeted warmly by conservative champions of social-media regulation, who believe it shows how states and the federal government can proceed on this front.

While much of the commentary to date has been on whether Thomas got the legal analysis right, or on the uncomfortable fit of common-carriage law to social media, the deeper question of the First Amendment’s protection of private ordering has received relatively short shrift.

Conservatives’ main argument has been that Big Tech needs to be reined in because it is restricting the speech of private individuals. While conservatives traditionally have defended the state-action doctrine and the right to editorial discretion, they now readily find exceptions to both in order to justify regulating social-media companies. But those two First Amendment doctrines have long enshrined an important general principle: private actors can set the rules for speech on their own property. I intend to analyze this principle from a law & economics perspective and show how it benefits society.

Who Balances the Benefits and Costs of Speech?

Like virtually any other human activity, there are benefits and costs to speech and it is ultimately subjective individual preference that determines the value that speech has. The First Amendment protects speech from governmental regulation, with only limited exceptions, but that does not mean all speech is acceptable or must be tolerated. Under the state-action doctrine, the First Amendment only prevents the government from restricting speech.

Some purported defenders of the principle of free speech no longer appear to see a distinction between restraints on speech imposed by the government and those imposed by private actors. But this is surely mistaken, as no one truly believes all speech protected by the First Amendment should be without consequence. In truth, most regulation of speech has always come by informal means—social mores enforced by dirty looks or responsive speech from others.

Moreover, property rights have long played a crucial role in determining speech rules within any given space. If a man were to come into my house and start calling my wife racial epithets, I would not only ask that person to leave but would exercise my right as a property owner to eject the trespasser—if necessary, calling the police to assist me. I similarly could not expect to go to a restaurant and yell at the top of my lungs about political issues and expect them—even as “common carriers” or places of public accommodation—to allow me to continue.

As Thomas Sowell wrote in Knowledge and Decisions:

The fact that different costs and benefits must be balanced does not in itself imply who must balance them―or even that there must be a single balance for all, or a unitary viewpoint (one “we”) from which the issue is categorically resolved.

Knowledge and Decisions, p. 240

When it comes to speech, the balance that must be struck is between one individual’s desire for an audience and that prospective audience’s willingness to play the role. Asking government to use regulation to make categorical decisions for all of society is substituting centralized evaluation of the costs and benefits of access to communications for the individual decisions of many actors. Rather than incremental decisions regarding how and under what terms individuals may relate to one another—which can evolve over time in response to changes in what individuals find acceptable—government by its nature can only hand down categorical guidelines: “you must allow x, y, and z speech.”

This is particularly relevant in the sphere of social media. Social-media companies are multi-sided platforms. They are profit-seeking, to be sure, but the way they generate profits is by acting as intermediaries between users and advertisers. If they fail to serve their users well, those users could abandon the platform. Without users, advertisers would have no interest in buying ads. And without advertisers, there is no profit to be made. Social-media companies thus need to maximize the value of their platform by setting rules that keep users engaged.

In the cases of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, the platforms have set content-moderation standards that restrict many kinds of speech that are generally viewed negatively by users, even if the First Amendment would foreclose the government from regulating those same types of content. This is a good thing. Social-media companies balance the speech interests of different kinds of users to maximize the value of the platform and, in turn, to maximize benefits to all.

Herein lies the fundamental difference between private action and state action: one is voluntary, and the other based on coercion. If Facebook or Twitter suspends a user for violating community rules, it represents termination of a previously voluntary association. If the government kicks someone out of a public forum for expressing legal speech, that is coercion. The state-action doctrine recognizes this fundamental difference and creates a bright-line rule that courts may police when it comes to speech claims. As Sowell put it:

The courts’ role as watchdogs patrolling the boundaries of governmental power is essential in order that others may be secure and free on the other side of those boundaries. But what makes watchdogs valuable is precisely their ability to distinguish those people who are to be kept at bay and those who are to be left alone. A watchdog who could not make that distinction would not be a watchdog at all, but simply a general menace.

Knowledge and Decisions, p. 244

Markets Produce the Best Moderation Policies

The First Amendment also protects the right of editorial discretion, which means publishers, platforms, and other speakers are free from carrying or transmitting government-compelled speech. Even a newspaper with near-monopoly power cannot be compelled by a right-of-reply statute to carry responses by political candidates to editorials it has published. In other words, not only is private regulation of speech not state action, but in many cases, private regulation is protected by the First Amendment.

There is no reason to think that social-media companies today are in a different position than was the newspaper in Miami Herald v. Tornillo. These companies must determine what, how, and where content is presented within their platform. While this right of editorial discretion protects the moderation decisions of social-media companies, its benefits accrue to society at-large.

Social-media companies’ abilities to differentiate themselves based on functionality and moderation policies are important aspects of competition among them. How each platform is used may differ depending on those factors. In fact, many consumers use multiple social-media platforms throughout the day for different purposes. Market competition, not government power, has enabled internet users (including conservatives!) to have more avenues than ever to get their message out.

Many conservatives remain unpersuaded by the power of markets in this case. They see multiple platforms all engaging in very similar content-moderation policies when it comes to certain touchpoint issues, and thus allege widespread anti-conservative bias and collusion. Neither of those claims have much factual support, but more importantly, the similarity of content-moderation standards may simply be common responses to similar demand structures—not some nefarious and conspiratorial plot.

In other words, if social-media users demand less of the kinds of content commonly considered to be hate speech, or less misinformation on certain important issues, platforms will do their best to weed those things out. Platforms won’t always get these determinations right, but it is by no means clear that forcing them to carry all “legal” speech—which would include not just misinformation and hate speech, but pornographic material, as well—would better serve social-media users. There are always alternative means to debate contestable issues of the day, even if it may be more costly to access them.

Indeed, that content-moderation policies make it more difficult to communicate some messages is precisely the point of having them. There is a subset of protected speech to which many users do not wish to be subject. Moreover, there is no inherent right to have an audience on a social-media platform.

Conclusion

Much of the First Amendment’s economic value lies in how it defines roles in the market for speech. As a general matter, it is not the government’s place to determine what speech should be allowed in private spaces. Instead, the private ordering of speech emerges through the application of social mores and property rights. This benefits society, as it allows individuals to create voluntary relationships built on marginal decisions about what speech is acceptable when and where, rather than centralized decisions made by a governing few and that are difficult to change over time.

In what has become regularly scheduled programming on Capitol Hill, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai will be subject to yet another round of congressional grilling—this time, about the platforms’ content-moderation policies—during a March 25 joint hearing of two subcommittees of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The stated purpose of this latest bit of political theatre is to explore, as made explicit in the hearing’s title, “social media’s role in promoting extremism and misinformation.” Specific topics are expected to include proposed changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, heightened scrutiny by the Federal Trade Commission, and misinformation about COVID-19—the subject of new legislation introduced by Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).

But while many in the Democratic majority argue that social media companies have not done enough to moderate misinformation or hate speech, it is a problem with no realistic legal fix. Any attempt to mandate removal of speech on grounds that it is misinformation or hate speech, either directly or indirectly, would run afoul of the First Amendment.

Much of the recent focus has been on misinformation spread on social media about the 2020 election and the COVID-19 pandemic. The memorandum for the March 25 hearing sums it up:

Facebook, Google, and Twitter have long come under fire for their role in the dissemination and amplification of misinformation and extremist content. For instance, since the beginning of the coronavirus disease of 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, all three platforms have spread substantial amounts of misinformation about COVID-19. At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, disinformation regarding the severity of the virus and the effectiveness of alleged cures for COVID-19 was widespread. More recently, COVID-19 disinformation has misrepresented the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.

Facebook, Google, and Twitter have also been distributors for years of election disinformation that appeared to be intended either to improperly influence or undermine the outcomes of free and fair elections. During the November 2016 election, social media platforms were used by foreign governments to disseminate information to manipulate public opinion. This trend continued during and after the November 2020 election, often fomented by domestic actors, with rampant disinformation about voter fraud, defective voting machines, and premature declarations of victory.

It is true that, despite social media companies’ efforts to label and remove false content and bar some of the biggest purveyors, there remains a considerable volume of false information on social media. But U.S. Supreme Court precedent consistently has limited government regulation of false speech to distinct categories like defamation, perjury, and fraud.

The Case of Stolen Valor

The court’s 2011 decision in United States v. Alvarez struck down as unconstitutional the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, which made it a federal crime to falsely claim to have earned a military medal. A four-justice plurality opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, along with a two-justice concurrence, both agreed that a statement being false did not, by itself, exclude it from First Amendment protection. 

Kennedy’s opinion noted that while the government may impose penalties for false speech connected with the legal process (perjury or impersonating a government official); with receiving a benefit (fraud); or with harming someone’s reputation (defamation); the First Amendment does not sanction penalties for false speech, in and of itself. The plurality exhibited particular skepticism toward the notion that government actors could be entrusted as a “Ministry of Truth,” empowered to determine what categories of false speech should be made illegal:

Permitting the government to decree this speech to be a criminal offense, whether shouted from the rooftops or made in a barely audible whisper, would endorse government authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable. That governmental power has no clear limiting principle. Our constitutional tradition stands against the idea that we need Oceania’s Ministry of Truth… Were this law to be sustained, there could be an endless list of subjects the National Government or the States could single out… Were the Court to hold that the interest in truthful discourse alone is sufficient to sustain a ban on speech, absent any evidence that the speech was used to gain a material advantage, it would give government a broad censorial power unprecedented in this Court’s cases or in our constitutional tradition. The mere potential for the exercise of that power casts a chill, a chill the First Amendment cannot permit if free speech, thought, and discourse are to remain a foundation of our freedom. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

As noted in the opinion, declaring false speech illegal constitutes a content-based restriction subject to “exacting scrutiny.” Applying that standard, the court found “the link between the Government’s interest in protecting the integrity of the military honors system and the Act’s restriction on the false claims of liars like respondent has not been shown.” 

While finding that the government “has not shown, and cannot show, why counterspeech would not suffice to achieve its interest,” the plurality suggested a more narrowly tailored solution could be simply to publish Medal of Honor recipients in an online database. In other words, the government could overcome the problem of false speech by promoting true speech. 

In 2012, President Barack Obama signed an updated version of the Stolen Valor Act that limited its penalties to situations where a misrepresentation is shown to result in receipt of some kind of benefit. That places the false speech in the category of fraud, consistent with the Alvarez opinion.

A Social Media Ministry of Truth

Applying the Alvarez standard to social media, the government could (and already does) promote its interest in public health or election integrity by publishing true speech through official channels. But there is little reason to believe the government at any level could regulate access to misinformation. Anything approaching an outright ban on accessing speech deemed false by the government not only would not be the most narrowly tailored way to deal with such speech, but it is bound to have chilling effects even on true speech.

The analysis doesn’t change if the government instead places Big Tech itself in the position of Ministry of Truth. Some propose making changes to Section 230, which currently immunizes social media companies from liability for user speech (with limited exceptions), regardless what moderation policies the platform adopts. A hypothetical change might condition Section 230’s liability shield on platforms agreeing to moderate certain categories of misinformation. But that would still place the government in the position of coercing platforms to take down speech. 

Even the “fix” of making social media companies liable for user speech they amplify through promotions on the platform, as proposed by Sen. Mark Warner’s (D-Va.) SAFE TECH Act, runs into First Amendment concerns. The aim of the bill is to regard sponsored content as constituting speech made by the platform, thus opening the platform to liability for the underlying misinformation. But any such liability also would be limited to categories of speech that fall outside First Amendment protection, like fraud or defamation. This would not appear to include most of the types of misinformation on COVID-19 or election security that animate the current legislative push.

There is no way for the government to regulate misinformation, in and of itself, consistent with the First Amendment. Big Tech companies are free to develop their own policies against misinformation, but the government may not force them to do so. 

Extremely Limited Room to Regulate Extremism

The Big Tech CEOs are also almost certain to be grilled about the use of social media to spread “hate speech” or “extremist content.” The memorandum for the March 25 hearing sums it up like this:

Facebook executives were repeatedly warned that extremist content was thriving on their platform, and that Facebook’s own algorithms and recommendation tools were responsible for the appeal of extremist groups and divisive content. Similarly, since 2015, videos from extremists have proliferated on YouTube; and YouTube’s algorithm often guides users from more innocuous or alternative content to more fringe channels and videos. Twitter has been criticized for being slow to stop white nationalists from organizing, fundraising, recruiting and spreading propaganda on Twitter.

Social media has often played host to racist, sexist, and other types of vile speech. While social media companies have community standards and other policies that restrict “hate speech” in some circumstances, there is demand from some public officials that they do more. But under a First Amendment analysis, regulating hate speech on social media would fare no better than the regulation of misinformation.

The First Amendment doesn’t allow for the regulation of “hate speech” as its own distinct category. Hate speech is, in fact, as protected as any other type of speech. There are some limited exceptions, as the First Amendment does not protect incitement, true threats of violence, or “fighting words.” Some of these flatly do not apply in the online context. “Fighting words,” for instance, applies only in face-to-face situations to “those personally abusive epithets which, when addressed to the ordinary citizen, are, as a matter of common knowledge, inherently likely to provoke violent reaction.”

One relevant precedent is the court’s 1992 decision in R.A.V. v. St. Paul, which considered a local ordinance in St. Paul, Minnesota, prohibiting public expressions that served to cause “outrage, alarm, or anger with respect to racial, gender or religious intolerance.” A juvenile was charged with violating the ordinance when he created a makeshift cross and lit it on fire in front of a black family’s home. The court unanimously struck down the ordinance as a violation of the First Amendment, finding it an impermissible content-based restraint that was not limited to incitement or true threats.

By contrast, in 2003’s Virginia v. Black, the Supreme Court upheld a Virginia law outlawing cross burnings done with the intent to intimidate. The court’s opinion distinguished R.A.V. on grounds that the Virginia statute didn’t single out speech regarding disfavored topics. Instead, it was aimed at speech that had the intent to intimidate regardless of the victim’s race, gender, religion, or other characteristic. But the court was careful to limit government regulation of hate speech to instances that involve true threats or incitement.

When it comes to incitement, the legal standard was set by the court’s landmark Brandenberg v. Ohio decision in 1969, which laid out that:

the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action. [EMPHASIS ADDED]

In other words, while “hate speech” is protected by the First Amendment, specific types of speech that convey true threats or fit under the related doctrine of incitement are not. The government may regulate those types of speech. And they do. In fact, social media users can be, and often are, charged with crimes for threats made online. But the government can’t issue a per se ban on hate speech or “extremist content.”

Just as with misinformation, the government also can’t condition Section 230 immunity on platforms removing hate speech. Insofar as speech is protected under the First Amendment, the government can’t specifically condition a government benefit on its removal. Even the SAFE TECH Act’s model for holding platforms accountable for amplifying hate speech or extremist content would have to be limited to speech that amounts to true threats or incitement. This is a far narrower category of hateful speech than the examples that concern legislators. 

Social media companies do remain free under the law to moderate hateful content as they see fit under their terms of service. Section 230 immunity is not dependent on whether companies do or don’t moderate such content, or on how they define hate speech. But government efforts to step in and define hate speech would likely run into First Amendment problems unless they stay focused on unprotected threats and incitement.

What Can the Government Do?

One may fairly ask what it is that governments can do to combat misinformation and hate speech online. The answer may be a law that requires takedowns by court order of speech after it is declared illegal, as proposed by the PACT Act, sponsored in the last session by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and John Thune (R-S.D.). Such speech may, in some circumstances, include misinformation or hate speech.

But as outlined above, the misinformation that the government can regulate is limited to situations like fraud or defamation, while the hate speech it can regulate is limited to true threats and incitement. A narrowly tailored law that looked to address those specific categories may or may not be a good idea, but it would likely survive First Amendment scrutiny, and may even prove a productive line of discussion with the tech CEOs.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly called for repeal of Section 230. But while Trump and fellow conservatives decry Big Tech companies for their alleged anti-conservative bias, including at yet more recent hearings, their issue is not actually with Section 230. It’s with the First Amendment. 

Conservatives can’t actually do anything directly about how social media platforms moderate content because it is the First Amendment that grants those platforms a right to editorial discretion. Even FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, who strongly opposes “Big Tech censorship,” recognizes this

By the same token, even if one were to grant that conservatives are right about the bias of moderators at these large social media platforms, it does not follow that removal of Section 230 immunity would alter that bias. In fact, in a world without Section 230 immunity, there still would be no legal cause of action for political bias. 

The truth is that conservatives use Section 230 immunity for leverage over social media platforms. The hope is that, because social media platforms desire the protections of civil immunity for third-party content, they will follow whatever conditions the government puts on their editorial discretion. But the attempt to end-run the First Amendment’s protections is also unconstitutional.

There is no cause of action for political bias by online platforms if we repeal Section 230

Consider the counterfactual: if there were no Section 230 to immunize them from liability, under what law would platforms face a viable cause of action for political bias? Conservative critics never answer this question. Instead, they focus on the irrelevant distinction between publishers and platforms. Or they talk about how Section 230 is a giveaway to Big Tech. But none consider the actual relationship between Section 230 immunity and alleged political bias.

But let’s imagine we’ve done what President Trump has called for and repealed Section 230. Where does that leave conservatives?

Unfortunately, it leaves them without any cause of action. There is no law passed by Congress or any state legislature, no regulation promulgated by the Federal Communications Commission or the Federal Trade Commission, no common law tort action that can be asserted against online platforms to force them to carry speech they don’t wish to carry. 

The difficulties of pursuing a contract claim for political bias

The best argument for conservatives is that, without Section 230 immunity, online platforms could be more easily held to any contractual restraints in their terms of service. If a platform promises, for instance, that it will moderate speech in a politically neutral way, a user could make the case that the platform violated its terms of service if it acted with political bias in her particular case.

For the vast majority of users, it is unclear whether there are damages from having a post fact-checked or removed. But for users who share in advertising revenue, the concrete injury from a moderation decision is more obvious. PragerU, for example, has (unsuccessfully) sued Google for being put in Restricted Mode on YouTube, which reduces its reach and advertising revenue. 

Even where there is a concrete injury that gets a case into court, that doesn’t necessarily mean there is a valid contract claim. In PragerU’s case against Google, a California court dismissed contract claims because the YouTube terms of service contract was written to allow the platform to retain discretion over what is published. Specifically, the court found that there can be no implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing where “YouTube reserves the right to remove Content without prior notice” and to “discontinue any aspect of the Service at any time.”

Breach-of-contract claims for moderation practices are highly dependent on what is actually promised in the terms of service. For instance, under Facebook’s TOS the company retains the right “to remove or restrict access to content that is in violation” of its community standards. Facebook does provide a process for users to request further review, but retains the right to remove content. The community standards also give Facebook broad discretion to determine, among other things, what counts as hate speech or false news. It is exceedingly unlikely that a court would ever have a basis to find a contract violation by Facebook if the company can reasonably point to a user’s violation of its terms of service. 

For example, in Ebeid v. Facebook, the U.S. Northern District of California dismissed fraud and breach of contract claims, finding the plaintiff failed to allege what contractual provision Facebook breached, that Facebook retained discretion over what ads would be posted, and that the plaintiff suffered no damages because no money was taken to be spent on the ads. The court also dismissed an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing claim because Facebook retained the right to “remove or disapprove any post or ad at Facebook’s sole discretion.”

While the conservative critique has been that social media platforms do too much moderation—in the form of politically biased removals, fact-checking, and demonetization—others believe platforms do far too little to restrain bad conduct by users. But as long as social media platforms retain editorial discretion in their terms of service and make no other promises that can be relied upon by their users, there is little basis for a contract claim. 

The First Amendment protects the moderation policies of social media platforms, and there is no way around this

With no reasonable cause of action for political bias under the law, conservatives dangle the threat of making changes to Section 230 immunity that could prove costly to the social media platforms in order to extract concessions from the platforms to alter their practices.

This is why there are no serious efforts to actually repeal Section 230, as President Trump has asked for repeatedly. Instead, several bills propose to amend Section 230, while a rulemaking by the FCC seeks to clarify its meaning. 

But none of these proposed bills would directly affect platforms’ ability to make “biased” moderation decisions. Put simply: the First Amendment protects social media platforms’ editorial discretion. They may set rules to use their platforms, just as any private person may set rules for their own property. If I kick someone off my property for saying racist things, the First Amendment (as well as regular property law) protects my right to do so. Only under extremely limited circumstances can the government change this baseline rule and survive constitutional scrutiny.

Social media platforms’ right to editorial discretion is the same as that enjoyed by newspapers. In Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, the Supreme Court found:

The choice of material to go into a newspaper, and the decisions made as to limitations on the size and content of the paper, and treatment of public issues and public officials—whether fair or unfair—constitute the exercise of editorial control and judgment. It has yet to be demonstrated how governmental regulation of this crucial process can be exercised consistent with First Amendment guarantees of a free press as they have evolved to this time. 

Social media platforms, just like any other property owner, have the right to determine what they want displayed on their property. In other words, Facebook, Google, and Twitter have the right to moderate content on news feeds, search results, and timelines. The attempted constitutional end-run—threatening to remove immunity for third-party content unrelated to political bias, like defamation and other tortious acts, unless social media platforms give up their right to editorial discretion over political speech—is just as unconstitutional as directly imposing “fairness” requirements on social media platforms.

The Supreme Court has held that Congress may not leverage a government benefit to regulate a speech interest outside of the benefit’s scope. This is called the unconstitutional conditions doctrine. It basically delineates the level of regulation the government can undertake through subsidizing behavior. The government can’t condition a government benefit on giving up editorial discretion over political speech.

The point of Section 230 immunity is to remedy the moderator’s dilemma set up by Stratton Oakmont v. Prodigy, which held that if a platform chose to moderate third-party speech at all, they would be liable for what was not removed. Section 230 is not about compelling political neutrality on platforms, because it can’t be consistent with the First Amendment. Civil immunity for third-party speech online is an important benefit for social media platforms because it holds they are not liable for the acts of third-parties, with limited exceptions. Without it, platforms would restrict opportunities for third-parties to post out of fear of liability

In sum, the government may not condition enjoyment of a government benefit upon giving up a constitutionally protected right. Section 230 immunity is a clear government benefit. The right to editorial discretion is clearly protected by the First Amendment. Because the entire point of conservative Section 230 reform efforts is to compel social media platforms to carry speech they otherwise desire to remove, it fails this basic test.

Conclusion

Fundamentally, the conservative push to reform Section 230 in response to the alleged anti-conservative bias of major social media platforms is not about policy. Really, it’s about waging a culture war against the perceived “liberal elites” from Silicon Valley, just as there is an ongoing culture war against perceived “liberal elites” in the mainstream media, Hollywood, and academia. But fighting this culture war is not worth giving up conservative principles of free speech, limited government, and free markets.

Over at the Federalist Society’s blog, there has been an ongoing debate about what to do about Section 230. While there has long-been variety in what we call conservatism in the United States, the most prominent strains have agreed on at least the following: Constitutionally limited government, free markets, and prudence in policy-making. You would think all of these values would be important in the Section 230 debate. It seems, however, that some are willing to throw these principles away in pursuit of a temporary political victory over perceived “Big Tech censorship.” 

Constitutionally Limited Government: Congress Shall Make No Law

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” Originalists on the Supreme Court have noted that this makes clear that the Constitution protects against state action, not private action. In other words, the Constitution protects a negative conception of free speech, not a positive conception.

Despite this, some conservatives believe that Section 230 should be about promoting First Amendment values by mandating private entities are held to the same standards as the government. 

For instance, in his Big Tech and the Whole First Amendment, Craig Parshall of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) stated:

What better example of objective free speech standards could we have than those First Amendment principles decided by justices appointed by an elected president and confirmed by elected members of the Senate, applying the ideals laid down by our Founders? I will take those over the preferences of brilliant computer engineers any day.

In other words, he thinks Section 230 should be amended to only give Big Tech the “subsidy” of immunity if it commits to a First Amendment-like editorial regime. To defend the constitutionality of such “restrictions on Big Tech”, he points to the Turner intermediate scrutiny standard, in which the Supreme Court upheld must-carry provisions against cable networks. In particular, Parshall latches on to the “bottleneck monopoly” language from the case to argue that Big Tech is similarly situated to cable providers at the time of the case.

Turner, however, turned more on the “special characteristics of the cable medium” that gave it the bottleneck power than the market power itself. As stated by the Supreme Court:

When an individual subscribes to cable, the physical connection between the television set and the cable network gives the cable operator bottleneck, or gatekeeper, control over most (if not all) of the television programming that is channeled into the subscriber’s home. Hence, simply by virtue of its ownership of the essential pathway for cable speech, a cable operator can prevent its subscribers from obtaining access to programming it chooses to exclude. A cable operator, unlike speakers in other media, can thus silence the voice of competing speakers with a mere flick of the switch.

Turner v. FCC, 512 U.S. 622, 656 (1994).

None of the Big Tech companies has the comparable ability to silence competing speakers with a flick of the switch. In fact, the relationship goes the other way on the Internet. Users can (and do) use multiple Big Tech companies’ services, as well as those of competitors which are not quite as big. Users are the ones who can switch with a click or a swipe. There is no basis for treating Big Tech companies any differently than other First Amendment speakers.

Like newspapers, Big Tech companies must use their editorial discretion to determine what is displayed and where. Just like those newspapers, Big Tech has the First Amendment right to editorial discretion. This, not Section 230, is the bedrock law that gives Big Tech companies the right to remove content.

Thus, when Rachel Bovard of the Internet Accountability Project argues that the FCC should remove the ability of tech platforms to engage in viewpoint discrimination, she makes a serious error in arguing it is Section 230 that gives them the right to remove content.

Immediately upon noting that the NTIA petition seeks clarification on the relationship between (c)(1) and (c)(2), Bovard moves right to concern over the removal of content. “Unfortunately, embedded in that section [(c)(2)] is a catch-all phrase, ‘otherwise objectionable,’ that gives tech platforms discretion to censor anything that they deem ‘otherwise objectionable.’ Such broad language lends itself in practice to arbitrariness.” 

In order for CDA 230 to “give[] tech platforms discretion to censor,” they would have to not have that discretion absent CDA 230. Bovard totally misses the point of the First Amendment argument, stating:

Yet DC’s tech establishment frequently rejects this argument, choosing instead to focus on the First Amendment right of corporations to suppress whatever content they so choose, never acknowledging that these choices, when made at scale, have enormous ramifications. . . . 

But this argument intentionally sidesteps the fact that Sec. 230 is not required by the First Amendment, and that its application to tech platforms privileges their First Amendment behavior in a unique way among other kinds of media corporations. Newspapers also have a First Amendment right to publish what they choose—but they are subject to defamation and libel laws for content they write, or merely publish. Media companies also make First Amendment decisions subject to a thicket of laws and regulations that do not similarly encumber tech platforms.

There is the merest kernel of truth in the lines quoted above. Newspapers are indeed subject to defamation and libel laws for what they publish. But, as should be obvious, liability for publication entails actually publishing something. And what some conservatives are concerned about is platforms’ ability to not publish something: to take down conservative content.

It might be simpler if the First Amendment treated published speech and unpublished speech the same way. But it doesn’t. One can be liable for what one speaks, writes, or publishes on behalf of others. Indeed, even with the full protection of the First Amendment, there is no question that newspapers can be held responsible for delicts caused by content they publish. But no newspaper has ever been held responsible for anything they didn’t publish.

Free Markets: Competition as the Bulwark Against Abuses, not Regulation

Conservatives have long believed in the importance of property rights, exchange, and the power of the free market to promote economic growth. Competition is seen as the protector of the consumer, not big government regulators. In the latter half of the twentieth century into the twenty-first century, conservatives have fought for capitalism over socialism, free markets over regulation, and competition over cronyism. But in the name of combating anti-conservative bias online, they are willing to throw these principles away.

The bedrock belief in the right of property owners to decide the terms of how they want to engage with others is fundamental to American conservatism. As stated by none other than Bovard (along with co-author Jim Demint in their book Conservative: Knowing What to Keep):

Capitalism is nothing more or less than the extension of individual freedom from the political and cultural realms to the economy. Just as government isn’t supposed to tell you how to pray, or what to think, or what sports teams to follow or books to read, it’s not supposed to tell you what to do with your own money and property.

Conservatives normally believe that it is the free choices of consumers and producers in the marketplace that maximize consumer welfare, rather than the choices of politicians and bureaucrats. Competition, in other words, is what protects us from abuses in the marketplace. Again as Bovard and Demint rightly put it:

Under the free enterprise system, money is not redistributed by a central government bureau. It goes wherever people see value. Those who create value are rewarded which then signals to the rest of the economy to up their game. It’s continuous democracy.

To get around this, both Parshall and Bovard make much of the “market dominance” of tech platforms. The essays take the position that tech platforms have nearly unassailable monopoly power which makes them unaccountable. Bovard claims that “mega-corporations have as much power as the government itself—and in some ways, more power, because theirs is unchecked and unaccountable.” Parshall even connects this to antitrust law, stating:  

This brings us to another kind of innovation, one that’s hidden from the public view. It has to do with how Big Tech companies use both algorithms plus human review during content moderation. This review process has resulted in the targeting, suppression, or down-ranking of primarily conservative content. As such, this process, should it continue, should be considered a kind of suppressive “innovation” in a quasi-antitrust analysis.

How the process harms “consumer welfare” is obvious. A more competitive market could produce social media platforms designing more innovational content moderation systems that honor traditional free speech and First Amendment norms while still offering features and connectivity akin to the huge players.

Antitrust law, in theory, would be a good way to handle issues of market power and consumer harm that results from non-price effects. But it is difficult to see how antitrust could handle the issue of political bias well:

Just as with privacy and other product qualities, the analysis becomes increasingly complex first when tradeoffs between price and quality are introduced, and then even more so when tradeoffs between what different consumer groups perceive as quality is added. In fact, it is more complex than privacy. All but the most exhibitionistic would prefer more to less privacy, all other things being equal. But with political media consumption, most would prefer to have more of what they want to read available, even if it comes at the expense of what others may want. There is no easy way to understand what consumer welfare means in a situation where one group’s preferences need to come at the expense of another’s in moderation decisions.

Neither antitrust nor quasi-antitrust regimes are well-suited to dealing with the perceived harm of anti-conservative bias. However unfulfilling this is to some conservatives, competition and choice are better answers to perceived political bias than the heavy hand of government. 

Prudence: Awareness of Unintended Consequences

Another bedrock principle of conservatism is to be aware of unintended consequences when making changes to long-standing laws and policies. In regulatory matters, cost-benefit analysis is employed to evaluate whether policies are improving societal outcomes. Using economic thinking to understand the likely responses to changes in regulation is fundamental to American conservatism. Or as Bovard and Demint’s book title suggests, conservatism is about knowing what to keep. 

Bovard has argued that since conservatism is a set of principles, not a dogmatic ideology, it can be in favor of fighting against the collectivism of Big Tech companies imposing their political vision upon the world. Conservatism, in this Kirkian sense, doesn’t require particular policy solutions. But this analysis misses what has worked about Section 230 and how the very tech platforms she decries have greatly benefited society. Prudence means understanding what has worked and only changing what has worked in a way that will improve upon it.

The benefits of Section 230 immunity in promoting platforms for third-party speech are clear. It is not an overstatement to say that Section 230 contains “The Twenty-Six Words that Created the Internet.” It is important to note that Section 230 is not only available to Big Tech companies. It is available to all online platforms who host third-party speech. Any reform efforts at Section 230 must know what to keep.In a sense, Section (c)(1) of Section 230 does, indeed, provide greater protection for published content online than the First Amendment on its own would offer: it extends the First Amendment’s permissible scope of published content for which an online service cannot be held liable to include otherwise actionable third-party content.

But let’s be clear about the extent of this protection. It doesn’t protect anything a platform itself publishes, or even anything in which it has a significant hand in producing. Why don’t offline newspapers enjoy this “handout” (though the online versions clearly do for comments)? Because they don’t need it, and because — yes, it’s true — it comes at a cost. How much third-party content would newspapers publish without significant input from the paper itself if only they were freed from the risk of liability for such content? None? Not much? The New York Times didn’t build and sustain its reputation on the slapdash publication of unedited ramblings by random commentators. But what about classifieds? Sure. There would be more classified ads, presumably. More to the point, newspapers would exert far less oversight over the classified ads, saving themselves the expense of moderating this one, small corner of their output.

There is a cost to traditional newspapers from being denied the extended protections of Section 230. But the effect is less third-party content in parts of the paper that they didn’t wish to have the same level of editorial control. If Section 230 is a “subsidy” as critics put it, then what it is subsidizing is the hosting of third-party speech. 

The Internet would look vastly different if it was just the online reproduction of the offline world. If tech platforms were responsible for all third-party speech to the degree that newspapers are for op-eds, then they would likely moderate it to the same degree, making sure there is nothing which could expose them to liability before publishing. This means there would be far less third-party speech on the Internet.

In fact, it could be argued that it is smaller platforms who would be most affected by the repeal of Section 230 immunity. Without it, it is likely that only the biggest tech platforms would have the necessary resources to dedicate to content moderation in order to avoid liability.

Proposed Section 230 reforms will likely have unintended consequences in reducing third-party speech altogether, including conservative speech. For instance, a few bills have proposed only allowing moderation for reasons defined by statute if the platform has an “objectively reasonable belief” that the speech fits under such categories. This would likely open up tech platforms to lawsuits over the meaning of “objectively reasonable belief” that could deter them from wanting to host third-party speech altogether. Similarly, lawsuits for “selective enforcement” of a tech platform’s terms of service could lead them to either host less speech or change their terms of service.

This could actually exacerbate the issue of political bias. Allegedly anti-conservative tech platforms could respond to a “good faith” requirement in enforcing its terms of service by becoming explicitly biased. If the terms of service of a tech platform state grounds which would exclude conservative speech, a requirement of “good faith” enforcement of those terms of service will do nothing to prevent the bias. 

Conclusion

Conservatives would do well to return to their first principles in the Section 230 debate. The Constitution’s First Amendment, respect for free markets and property rights, and appreciation for unintended consequences in changing tech platform incentives all caution against the current proposals to condition Section 230 immunity on platforms giving up editorial discretion. Whether or not tech platforms engage in anti-conservative bias, there’s nothing conservative about abdicating these principles for the sake of political expediency.

In the latest congressional hearing, purportedly analyzing Google’s “stacking the deck” in the online advertising marketplace, much of the opening statement and questioning by Senator Mike Lee and later questioning by Senator Josh Hawley focused on an episode of alleged anti-conservative bias by Google in threatening to demonetize The Federalist, a conservative publisher, unless they exercised a greater degree of control over its comments section. The senators connected this to Google’s “dominance,” arguing that it is only because Google’s ad services are essential that Google can dictate terms to a conservative website. A similar impulse motivates Section 230 reform efforts as well: allegedly anti-conservative online platforms wield their dominance to censor conservative speech, either through deplatforming or demonetization.

Before even getting into the analysis of how to incorporate political bias into antitrust analysis, though, it should be noted that there likely is no viable antitrust remedy. Even aside from the Section 230 debate, online platforms like Google are First Amendment speakers who have editorial discretion over their sites and apps, much like newspapers. An antitrust remedy compelling these companies to carry speech they disagree with would almost certainly violate the First Amendment.

But even aside from the First Amendment aspect of this debate, there is no easy way to incorporate concerns about political bias into antitrust. Perhaps the best way to understand this argument in the antitrust sense is as a non-price effects analysis. 

Political bias could be seen by end consumers as an important aspect of product quality. Conservatives have made the case that not only Google, but also Facebook and Twitter, have discriminated against conservative voices. The argument would then follow that consumer welfare is harmed when these dominant platforms leverage their control of the social media marketplace into the marketplace of ideas by censoring voices with whom they disagree. 

While this has theoretical plausibility, there are real practical difficulties. As Geoffrey Manne and I have written previously, in the context of incorporating privacy into antitrust analysis:

The Horizontal Merger Guidelines have long recognized that anticompetitive effects may “be manifested in non-price terms and conditions that adversely affect customers.” But this notion, while largely unobjectionable in the abstract, still presents significant problems in actual application. 

First, product quality effects can be extremely difficult to distinguish from price effects. Quality-adjusted price is usually the touchstone by which antitrust regulators assess prices for competitive effects analysis. Disentangling (allegedly) anticompetitive quality effects from simultaneous (neutral or pro-competitive) price effects is an imprecise exercise, at best. For this reason, proving a product-quality case alone is very difficult and requires connecting the degradation of a particular element of product quality to a net gain in advantage for the monopolist. 

Second, invariably product quality can be measured on more than one dimension. For instance, product quality could include both function and aesthetics: A watch’s quality lies in both its ability to tell time as well as how nice it looks on your wrist. A non-price effects analysis involving product quality across multiple dimensions becomes exceedingly difficult if there is a tradeoff in consumer welfare between the dimensions. Thus, for example, a smaller watch battery may improve its aesthetics, but also reduce its reliability. Any such analysis would necessarily involve a complex and imprecise comparison of the relative magnitudes of harm/benefit to consumers who prefer one type of quality to another.

Just as with privacy and other product qualities, the analysis becomes increasingly complex first when tradeoffs between price and quality are introduced, and then even more so when tradeoffs between what different consumer groups perceive as quality is added. In fact, it is more complex than privacy. All but the most exhibitionistic would prefer more to less privacy, all other things being equal. But with political media consumption, most would prefer to have more of what they want to read available, even if it comes at the expense of what others may want. There is no easy way to understand what consumer welfare means in a situation where one group’s preferences need to come at the expense of another’s in moderation decisions.

Consider the case of The Federalist again. The allegation is that Google is imposing their anticonservative bias by “forcing” the website to clean up its comments section. The argument is that since The Federalist needs Google’s advertising money, it must play by Google’s rules. And since it did so, there is now one less avenue for conservative speech.

What this argument misses is the balance Google and other online services must strike as multi-sided platforms. The goal is to connect advertisers on one side of the platform, to the users on the other. If a site wants to take advantage of the ad network, it seems inevitable that intermediaries like Google will need to create rules about what can and can’t be shown or they run the risk of losing advertisers who don’t want to be associated with certain speech or conduct. For instance, most companies don’t want to be associated with racist commentary. Thus, they will take great pains to make sure they don’t sponsor or place ads in venues associated with racism. Online platforms connecting advertisers to potential consumers must take that into consideration.

Users, like those who frequent The Federalist, have unpriced access to content across those sites and apps which are part of ad networks like Google’s. Other models, like paid subscriptions (which The Federalist also has available), are also possible. But it isn’t clear that conservative voices or conservative consumers have been harmed overall by the option of unpriced access on one side of the platform, with advertisers paying on the other side. If anything, it seems the opposite is the case since conservatives long complained about legacy media having a bias and lauded the Internet as an opportunity to gain a foothold in the marketplace of ideas.

Online platforms like Google must balance the interests of users from across the political spectrum. If their moderation practices are too politically biased in one direction or another, users could switch to another online platform with one click or swipe. Assuming online platforms wish to maximize revenue, they will have a strong incentive to limit political bias from its moderation practices. The ease of switching to another platform which markets itself as more free speech-friendly, like Parler, shows entrepreneurs can take advantage of market opportunities if Google and other online platforms go too far with political bias. 

While one could perhaps argue that the major online platforms are colluding to keep out conservative voices, this is difficult to square with the different moderation practices each employs, as well as the data that suggests conservative voices are consistently among the most shared on Facebook

Antitrust is not a cure-all law. Conservatives who normally understand this need to reconsider whether antitrust is really well-suited for litigating concerns about anti-conservative bias online. 

Twitter’s decision to begin fact-checking the President’s tweets caused a long-simmering distrust between conservatives and online platforms to boil over late last month. This has led some conservatives to ask whether Section 230, the ‘safe harbour’ law that protects online platforms from certain liability stemming from content posted on their websites by users, is allowing online platforms to unfairly target conservative speech. 

In response to Twitter’s decision, along with an Executive Order released by the President that attacked Section 230, Senator Josh Hawley (R – MO) offered a new bill targeting online platforms, the “Limiting Section 230 Immunity to Good Samaritans Act”. This would require online platforms to engage in “good faith” moderation according to clearly stated terms of service – in effect, restricting Section 230’s protections to online platforms deemed to have done enough to moderate content ‘fairly’.  

While seemingly a sensible standard, if enacted, this approach would violate the First Amendment as an unconstitutional condition to a government benefit, thereby  undermining long-standing conservative principles and the ability of conservatives to be treated fairly online. 

There is established legal precedent that Congress may not grant benefits on conditions that violate Constitutionally-protected rights. In Rumsfeld v. FAIR, the Supreme Court stated that a law that withheld funds from universities that did not allow military recruiters on campus would be unconstitutional if it constrained those universities’ First Amendment rights to free speech. Since the First Amendment protects the right to editorial discretion, including the right of online platforms to make their own decisions on moderation, Congress may not condition Section 230 immunity on platforms taking a certain editorial stance it has dictated. 

Aware of this precedent, the bill attempts to circumvent the obstacle by taking away Section 230 immunity for issues unrelated to anti-conservative bias in moderation. Specifically, Senator Hawley’s bill attempts to condition immunity for platforms on having terms of service for content moderation, and making them subject to lawsuits if they do not act in “good faith” in policing them. 

It’s not even clear that the bill would do what Senator Hawley wants it to. The “good faith” standard only appears to apply to the enforcement of an online platform’s terms of service. It can’t, under the First Amendment, actually dictate what those terms of service say. So an online platform could, in theory, explicitly state in their terms of service that they believe some forms of conservative speech are “hate speech” they will not allow.

Mandating terms of service on content moderation is arguably akin to disclosures like labelling requirements, because it makes clear to platforms’ customers what they’re getting. There are, however, some limitations under the commercial speech doctrine as to what government can require. Under National Institute of Family & Life Advocates v. Becerra, a requirement for terms of service outlining content moderation policies would be upheld unless “unjustified or unduly burdensome.” A disclosure mandate alone would not be unconstitutional. 

But it is clear from the statutory definition of “good faith” that Senator Hawley is trying to overwhelm online platforms with lawsuits on the grounds that they have enforced these rules selectively and therefore not in “good faith”.

These “selective enforcement” lawsuits would make it practically impossible for platforms to moderate content at all, because they would open them up to being sued for any moderation, including moderation  completely unrelated to any purported anti-conservative bias. Any time a YouTuber was aggrieved about a video being pulled down as too sexually explicit, for example, they could file suit and demand that Youtube release information on whether all other similarly situated users were treated the same way. Any time a post was flagged on Facebook, for example for engaging in online bullying or for spreading false information, it could similarly lead to the same situation. 

This would end up requiring courts to act as the arbiter of decency and truth in order to even determine whether online platforms are “selectively enforcing” their terms of service.

Threatening liability for all third-party content is designed to force online platforms to give up moderating content on a perceived political basis. The result will be far less content moderation on a whole range of other areas. It is precisely this scenario that Section 230 was designed to prevent, in order to encourage platforms to moderate things like pornography that would otherwise proliferate on their sites, without exposing themselves to endless legal challenge.

It is likely that this would be unconstitutional as well. Forcing online platforms to choose between exercising their First Amendment rights to editorial discretion and retaining the benefits of Section 230 is exactly what the “unconstitutional conditions” jurisprudence is about. 

This is why conservatives have long argued the government has no business compelling speech. They opposed the “fairness doctrine” which required that radio stations provide a “balanced discussion”, and in practice allowed courts or federal agencies to determine content  until President Reagan overturned it. Later, President Bush appointee and then-FTC Chairman Tim Muris rejected a complaint against Fox News for its “Fair and Balanced” slogan, stating:

I am not aware of any instance in which the Federal Trade Commission has investigated the slogan of a news organization. There is no way to evaluate this petition without evaluating the content of the news at issue. That is a task the First Amendment leaves to the American people, not a government agency.

And recently conservatives were arguing businesses like Masterpiece Cakeshop should not be compelled to exercise their First Amendment rights against their will. All of these cases demonstrate once the state starts to try to stipulate what views can and cannot be broadcast by private organisations, conservatives will be the ones who suffer.

Senator Hawley’s bill fails to acknowledge this. Worse, it fails to live up to the Constitution, and would trample over the rights to freedom of speech that it gives. Conservatives should reject it.

In the wake of the launch of Facebook’s content oversight board, Republican Senator Josh Hawley and FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, among others, have taken to Twitter to levy criticisms at the firm and, in the process, demonstrate just how far the Right has strayed from its first principles around free speech and private property. For his part, Commissioner Carr’s thread makes the case that the members of the board are highly partisan and mostly left-wing and can’t be trusted with the responsibility of oversight. While Senator Hawley took the approach that the Board’s very existence is just further evidence of the need to break Facebook up. 

Both Hawley and Carr have been lauded in rightwing circles, but in reality their positions contradict conservative notions of the free speech and private property protections given by the First Amendment.  

This blog post serves as a sequel to a post I wrote last year here at TOTM explaining how There’s nothing “conservative” about Trump’s views on free speech and the regulation of social media. As I wrote there:

I have noted in several places before that there is a conflict of visions when it comes to whether the First Amendment protects a negative or positive conception of free speech. For those unfamiliar with the distinction: it comes from philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who identified negative liberty as freedom from external interference, and positive liberty as freedom to do something, including having the power and resources necessary to do that thing. Discussions of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech often elide over this distinction.

With respect to speech, the negative conception of liberty recognizes that individual property owners can control what is said on their property, for example. To force property owners to allow speakers/speech on their property that they don’t desire would actually be a violation of their liberty — what the Supreme Court calls “compelled speech.” The First Amendment, consistent with this view, generally protects speech from government interference (with very few, narrow exceptions), while allowing private regulation of speech (again, with very few, narrow exceptions).

Commissioner Carr’s complaint and Senator Hawley’s antitrust approach of breaking up Facebook has much more in common with the views traditionally held by left-wing Democrats on the need for the government to regulate private actors in order to promote speech interests. Originalists and law & economics scholars, on the other hand, have consistently taken the opposite point of view that the First Amendment protects against government infringement of speech interests, including protecting the right to editorial discretion. While there is clearly a conflict of visions in First Amendment jurisprudence, the conservative (and, in my view, correct) point of view should not be jettisoned by Republicans to achieve short-term political gains.

The First Amendment restricts government action, not private action

The First Amendment, by its very text, only applies to government action: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” This applies to the “State[s]” through the Fourteenth Amendment. There is extreme difficulty in finding any textual hook to say the First Amendment protects against private action, like that of Facebook. 

Originalists have consistently agreed. Most recently, in Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck, Justice Kavanaugh—on behalf of the conservative bloc and the Court—wrote:

Ratified in 1791, the First Amendment provides in relevant part that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” Ratified in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment makes the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause applicable against the States: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law . . . .” §1. The text and original meaning of those Amendments, as well as this Court’s longstanding precedents, establish that the Free Speech Clause prohibits only governmental abridgment of speech. The Free Speech Clause does not prohibit private abridgment of speech… In accord with the text and structure of the Constitution, this Court’s state-action doctrine distinguishes the government from individuals and private entities. By enforcing that constitutional boundary between the governmental and the private, the state-action doctrine protects a robust sphere of individual liberty. (Emphasis added).

This was true at the adoption of the First Amendment and remains true today in a high-tech world. Federal district courts have consistently dismissed First Amendment lawsuits against Facebook on the grounds there is no state action. 

For instance, in Nyawba v. Facebook, the plaintiff initiated a civil rights lawsuit against Facebook for restricting his use of the platform. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas dismissed the case, noting 

Because the First Amendment governs only governmental restrictions on speech, Nyabwa has not stated a cause of action against FaceBook… Like his free speech claims, Nyabwa’s claims for violation of his right of association and violation of his due process rights are claims that may be vindicated against governmental actors pursuant to § 1983, but not a private entity such as FaceBook.

Similarly, in Young v. Facebook, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California rejected a claim that Facebook violated the First Amendment by deactivating the plaintiff’s Facebook page. The court declined to subject Facebook to the First Amendment analysis, stating that “because Young has not alleged any action under color of state law, she fails to state a claim under § 1983.”

The First Amendment restricts antitrust actions against Facebook, not Facebook’s editorial discretion over its platform

Far from restricting Facebook, the First Amendment actually restricts government actions aimed at platforms like Facebook when they engage in editorial discretion by moderating content. If an antitrust plaintiff was to act on the impulse to “break up” Facebook because of alleged political bias in its editorial discretion, the lawsuit would be running headlong into the First Amendment’s protections.

There is no basis for concluding online platforms do not have editorial discretion under the law. In fact, the position of Facebook here is very similar to the newspaper in Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, in which the Supreme Court considered a state law giving candidates for public office a right to reply in newspapers to editorials written about them. The Florida Supreme Court upheld the statute, finding it furthered the “broad societal interest in the free flow of information to the public.” The U.S. Supreme Court, despite noting the level of concentration in the newspaper industry, nonetheless reversed. The Court explicitly found the newspaper had a First Amendment right to editorial discretion:

The choice of material to go into a newspaper, and the decisions made as to limitations on the size and content of the paper, and treatment of public issues and public officials — whether fair or unfair — constitute the exercise of editorial control and judgment. It has yet to be demonstrated how governmental regulation of this crucial process can be exercised consistent with First Amendment guarantees of a free press as they have evolved to this time. 

Online platforms have the same First Amendment protections for editorial discretion. For instance, in both Search King v. Google and Langdon v. Google, two different federal district courts ruled Google’s search results are subject to First Amendment protections, both citing Tornillo

In Zhang v. Baidu.com, another district court went so far as to grant a Chinese search engine the right to editorial discretion in limiting access to democracy movements in China. The court found that the search engine “inevitably make[s] editorial judgments about what information (or kinds of information) to include in the results and how and where to display that information.” Much like the search engine in Zhang, Facebook is clearly making editorial judgments about what information shows up in newsfeed and where to display it. 

None of this changes because the generally applicable law is antitrust rather than some other form of regulation. For instance, in Tornillo, the Supreme Court took pains to distinguish the case from an earlier antitrust case against newspapers, Associated Press v. United States, which found that there was no broad exemption from antitrust under the First Amendment.

The Court foresaw the problems relating to government-enforced access as early as its decision in Associated Press v. United States, supra. There it carefully contrasted the private “compulsion to print” called for by the Association’s bylaws with the provisions of the District Court decree against appellants which “does not compel AP or its members to permit publication of anything which their `reason’ tells them should not be published.”

In other words, the Tornillo and Associated Press establish the government may not compel speech through regulation, including an antitrust remedy. 

Once it is conceded that there is a speech interest here, the government must justify the use of antitrust law to compel Facebook to display the speech of users in the newsfeeds of others under the strict scrutiny test of the First Amendment. In other words, the use of antitrust law must be narrowly tailored to a compelling government interest. Even taking for granted that there may be a compelling government interest in facilitating a free and open platform (which is by no means certain), it is clear that this would not be narrowly tailored action. 

First, “breaking up” Facebook is clearly overbroad as compared to the goal of promoting free speech on the platform. There is no need to break it up just because it has an Oversight Board that engages in editorial responsibilities. There are many less restrictive means, including market competition, which has greatly expanded consumer choice for communications and connections. Second, antitrust does not even really have a remedy for free speech issues complained of here, as it would require courts to engage in long-term oversight and engage in compelled speech foreclosed by Associated Press

Note that this makes good sense from a law & economics perspective. Platforms like Facebook should be free to regulate the speech on their platforms as they see fit and consumers are free to decide which platforms they wish to use based upon that information. While there are certainly network effects to social media, the plethora of options currently available with low switching costs suggests that there is no basis for antitrust action against Facebook because consumers are unable to speak. In other words, the least restrictive means test of the First Amendment is best fulfilled by market competition in this case.

If there were a basis for antitrust intervention against Facebook, either through merger review or as a standalone monopoly claim, the underlying issue would be harm to competition. While this would have implications for speech concerns (which may be incorporated into an analysis through quality-adjusted price), it is inconceivable how an antitrust remedy could be formed on speech issues consistent with the First Amendment. 

Conclusion

Despite now well-worn complaints by so-called conservatives in and out of the government about the baneful influence of Facebook and other Big Tech companies, the First Amendment forecloses government actions to violate the editorial discretion of these companies. Even if Commissioner Carr is right, this latest call for antitrust enforcement against Facebook by Senator Hawley should be rejected for principled conservative reasons.

Monday July 22, ICLE filed a regulatory comment arguing the leased access requirements enforced by the FCC are unconstitutional compelled speech that violate the First Amendment. 

When the DC Circuit Court of Appeals last reviewed the constitutionality of leased access rules in Time Warner v. FCC, cable had so-called “bottleneck power” over the marketplace for video programming and, just a few years prior, the Supreme Court had subjected other programming regulations to intermediate scrutiny in Turner v. FCC

Intermediate scrutiny is a lower standard than the strict scrutiny usually required for First Amendment claims. Strict scrutiny requires a regulation of speech to be narrowly tailored to a compelling state interest. Intermediate scrutiny only requires a regulation to further an important or substantial governmental interest unrelated to the suppression of free expression, and the incidental restriction speech must be no greater than is essential to the furtherance of that interest.

But, since the decisions in Time Warner and Turner, there have been dramatic changes in the video marketplace (including the rise of the Internet!) and cable no longer has anything like “bottleneck power.” Independent programmers have many distribution options to get content to consumers. Since the justification for intermediate scrutiny is no longer an accurate depiction of the competitive marketplace, the leased rules should be subject to strict scrutiny.

And, if subject to strict scrutiny, the leased access rules would not survive judicial review. Even accepting that there is a compelling governmental interest, the rules are not narrowly tailored to that end. Not only are they essentially obsolete in the highly competitive video distribution marketplace, but antitrust law would be better suited to handle any anticompetitive abuses of market power by cable operators. There is no basis for compelling the cable operators to lease some of their channels to unaffiliated programmers.

Our full comments are here

Yesterday was President Trump’s big “Social Media Summit” where he got together with a number of right-wing firebrands to decry the power of Big Tech to censor conservatives online. According to the Wall Street Journal

Mr. Trump attacked social-media companies he says are trying to silence individuals and groups with right-leaning views, without presenting specific evidence. He said he was directing his administration to “explore all legislative and regulatory solutions to protect free speech and the free speech of all Americans.”

“Big Tech must not censor the voices of the American people,” Mr. Trump told a crowd of more than 100 allies who cheered him on. “This new technology is so important and it has to be used fairly.”

Despite the simplistic narrative tying President Trump’s vision of the world to conservatism, there is nothing conservative about his views on the First Amendment and how it applies to social media companies.

I have noted in several places before that there is a conflict of visions when it comes to whether the First Amendment protects a negative or positive conception of free speech. For those unfamiliar with the distinction: it comes from philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who identified negative liberty as freedom from external interference, and positive liberty as freedom to do something, including having the power and resources necessary to do that thing. Discussions of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech often elide over this distinction.

With respect to speech, the negative conception of liberty recognizes that individual property owners can control what is said on their property, for example. To force property owners to allow speakers/speech on their property that they don’t desire would actually be a violation of their liberty — what the Supreme Court calls “compelled speech.” The First Amendment, consistent with this view, generally protects speech from government interference (with very few, narrow exceptions), while allowing private regulation of speech (again, with very few, narrow exceptions).

Contrary to the original meaning of the First Amendment and the weight of Supreme Court precedent, President Trump’s view of the First Amendment is that it protects a positive conception of liberty — one under which the government, in order to facilitate its conception of “free speech,” has the right and even the duty to impose restrictions on how private actors regulate speech on their property (in this case, social media companies). 

But if Trump’s view were adopted, discretion as to what is necessary to facilitate free speech would be left to future presidents and congresses, undermining the bedrock conservative principle of the Constitution as a shield against government regulation, all falsely in the name of protecting speech. This is counter to the general approach of modern conservatism (but not, of course, necessarily Republicanism) in the United States, including that of many of President Trump’s own judicial and agency appointees. Indeed, it is actually more consistent with the views of modern progressives — especially within the FCC.

For instance, the current conservative bloc on the Supreme Court (over the dissent of the four liberal Justices) recently reaffirmed the view that the First Amendment applies only to state action in Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck. The opinion, written by Trump-appointee, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, states plainly that:

Ratified in 1791, the First Amendment provides in relevant part that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” Ratified in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment makes the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause applicable against the States: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law . . . .” §1. The text and original meaning of those Amendments, as well as this Court’s longstanding precedents, establish that the Free Speech Clause prohibits only governmental abridgment of speech. The Free Speech Clause does not prohibit private abridgment of speech… In accord with the text and structure of the Constitution, this Court’s state-action doctrine distinguishes the government from individuals and private entities. By enforcing that constitutional boundary between the governmental and the private, the state-action doctrine protects a robust sphere of individual liberty. (Emphasis added).

Former Stanford Law dean and First Amendment scholar, Kathleen Sullivan, has summed up the very different approaches to free speech pursued by conservatives and progressives (insofar as they are represented by the “conservative” and “liberal” blocs on the Supreme Court): 

In the first vision…, free speech rights serve an overarching interest in political equality. Free speech as equality embraces first an antidiscrimination principle: in upholding the speech rights of anarchists, syndicalists, communists, civil rights marchers, Maoist flag burners, and other marginal, dissident, or unorthodox speakers, the Court protects members of ideological minorities who are likely to be the target of the majority’s animus or selective indifference…. By invalidating conditions on speakers’ use of public land, facilities, and funds, a long line of speech cases in the free-speech-as-equality tradition ensures public subvention of speech expressing “the poorly financed causes of little people.” On the equality-based view of free speech, it follows that the well-financed causes of big people (or big corporations) do not merit special judicial protection from political regulation. And because, in this view, the value of equality is prior to the value of speech, politically disadvantaged speech prevails over regulation but regulation promoting political equality prevails over speech.

The second vision of free speech, by contrast, sees free speech as serving the interest of political liberty. On this view…, the First Amendment is a negative check on government tyranny, and treats with skepticism all government efforts at speech suppression that might skew the private ordering of ideas. And on this view, members of the public are trusted to make their own individual evaluations of speech, and government is forbidden to intervene for paternalistic or redistributive reasons. Government intervention might be warranted to correct certain allocative inefficiencies in the way that speech transactions take place, but otherwise, ideas are best left to a freely competitive ideological market.

The outcome of Citizens United is best explained as representing a triumph of the libertarian over the egalitarian vision of free speech. Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the Court, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito, articulates a robust vision of free speech as serving political liberty; the dissenting opinion by Justice Stevens, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor, sets forth in depth the countervailing egalitarian view. (Emphasis added).

President Trump’s views on the regulation of private speech are alarmingly consistent with those embraced by the Court’s progressives to “protect[] members of ideological minorities who are likely to be the target of the majority’s animus or selective indifference” — exactly the sort of conservative “victimhood” that Trump and his online supporters have somehow concocted to describe themselves. 

Trump’s views are also consistent with those of progressives who, since the Reagan FCC abolished it in 1987, have consistently angled for a resurrection of some form of fairness doctrine, as well as other policies inconsistent with the “free-speech-as-liberty” view. Thus Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel takes a far more interventionist approach to private speech:

The First Amendment does more than protect the interests of corporations. As courts have long recognized, it is a force to support individual interest in self-expression and the right of the public to receive information and ideas. As Justice Black so eloquently put it, “the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public.” Our leased access rules provide opportunity for civic participation. They enhance the marketplace of ideas by increasing the number of speakers and the variety of viewpoints. They help preserve the possibility of a diverse, pluralistic medium—just as Congress called for the Cable Communications Policy Act… The proper inquiry then, is not simply whether corporations providing channel capacity have First Amendment rights, but whether this law abridges expression that the First Amendment was meant to protect. Here, our leased access rules are not content-based and their purpose and effect is to promote free speech. Moreover, they accomplish this in a narrowly-tailored way that does not substantially burden more speech than is necessary to further important interests. In other words, they are not at odds with the First Amendment, but instead help effectuate its purpose for all of us. (Emphasis added).

Consistent with the progressive approach, this leaves discretion in the hands of “experts” (like Rosenworcel) to determine what needs to be done in order to protect the underlying value of free speech in the First Amendment through government regulation, even if it means compelling speech upon private actors. 

Trump’s view of what the First Amendment’s free speech protections entail when it comes to social media companies is inconsistent with the conception of the Constitution-as-guarantor-of-negative-liberty that conservatives have long embraced. 

Of course, this is not merely a “conservative” position; it is fundamental to the longstanding bipartisan approach to free speech generally and to the regulation of online platforms specifically. As a diverse group of 75 scholars and civil society groups (including ICLE) wrote yesterday in their “Principles for Lawmakers on Liability for User-Generated Content Online”:

Principle #2: Any new intermediary liability law must not target constitutionally protected speech.

The government shouldn’t require—or coerce—intermediaries to remove constitutionally protected speech that the government cannot prohibit directly. Such demands violate the First Amendment. Also, imposing broad liability for user speech incentivizes services to err on the side of taking down speech, resulting in overbroad censorship—or even avoid offering speech forums altogether.

As those principles suggest, the sort of platform regulation that Trump, et al. advocate — essentially a “fairness doctrine” for the Internet — is the opposite of free speech:

Principle #4: Section 230 does not, and should not, require “neutrality.”

Publishing third-party content online never can be “neutral.” Indeed, every publication decision will necessarily prioritize some content at the expense of other content. Even an “objective” approach, such as presenting content in reverse chronological order, isn’t neutral because it prioritizes recency over other values. By protecting the prioritization, de-prioritization, and removal of content, Section 230 provides Internet services with the legal certainty they need to do the socially beneficial work of minimizing harmful content.

The idea that social media should be subject to a nondiscrimination requirement — for which President Trump and others like Senator Josh Hawley have been arguing lately — is flatly contrary to Section 230 — as well as to the First Amendment.

Conservatives upset about “social media discrimination” need to think hard about whether they really want to adopt this sort of position out of convenience, when the tradition with which they align rejects it — rightly — in nearly all other venues. Even if you believe that Facebook, Google, and Twitter are trying to make it harder for conservative voices to be heard (despite all evidence to the contrary), it is imprudent to reject constitutional first principles for a temporary policy victory. In fact, there’s nothing at all “conservative” about an abdication of the traditional principle linking freedom to property for the sake of political expediency.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that unwanted telephone calls are among the most reviled annoyances known to man. But this does not mean that laws intended to prohibit these calls are themselves necessarily good. Indeed, in one sense we know intuitively that they are not good. These laws have proven wholly ineffective at curtailing the robocall menace — it is hard to call any law as ineffective as these “good”. And these laws can be bad in another sense: because they fail to curtail undesirable speech but may burden desirable speech, they raise potentially serious First Amendment concerns.

I presented my exploration of these concerns, coming out soon in the Brooklyn Law Review, last month at TPRC. The discussion, which I get into below, focuses on the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), the main law that we have to fight against robocalls. It considers both narrow First Amendment concerns raised by the TCPA as well as broader concerns about the Act in the modern technological setting.

Telemarketing Sucks

It is hard to imagine that there is a need to explain how much of a pain telemarketing is. Indeed, it is rare that I give a talk on the subject without receiving a call during the talk. At the last FCC Open Meeting, after the Commission voted on a pair of enforcement actions taken against telemarketers, Commissioner Rosenworcel picked up her cell phone to share that she had received a robocall during the vote. Robocalls are the most complained of issue at both the FCC and FTC. Today, there are well over 4 billion robocalls made every month. It’s estimated that half of all phone calls made in 2019 will be scams (most of which start with a robocall). .

It’s worth noting that things were not always this way. Unsolicited and unwanted phone calls have been around for decades — but they have become something altogether different and more problematic in the past 10 years. The origin of telemarketing was the simple extension of traditional marketing to the medium of the telephone. This form of telemarketing was a huge annoyance — but fundamentally it was, or at least was intended to be, a mere extension of legitimate business practices. There was almost always a real business on the other end of the line, trying to advertise real business opportunities.

This changed in the 2000s with the creation of the Do Not Call (DNC) registry. The DNC registry effectively killed the “legitimate” telemarketing business. Companies faced significant penalties if they called individuals on the DNC registry, and most telemarketing firms tied the registry into their calling systems so that numbers on it could not be called. And, unsurprisingly, an overwhelming majority of Americans put their phone numbers on the registry. As a result the business proposition behind telemarketing quickly dried up. There simply weren’t enough individuals not on the DNC list to justify the risk of accidentally calling individuals who were on the list.

Of course, anyone with a telephone today knows that the creation of the DNC registry did not eliminate robocalls. But it did change the nature of the calls. The calls we receive today are, overwhelmingly, not coming from real businesses trying to market real services or products. Rather, they’re coming from hucksters, fraudsters, and scammers — from Rachels from Cardholder Services and others who are looking for opportunities to defraud. Sometimes they may use these calls to find unsophisticated consumers who can be conned out of credit card information. Other times they are engaged in any number of increasingly sophisticated scams designed to trick consumers into giving up valuable information.

There is, however, a more important, more basic difference between pre-DNC calls and the ones we receive today. Back in the age of legitimate businesses trying to use the telephone for marketing, the relationship mattered. Those businesses couldn’t engage in business anonymously. But today’s robocallers are scam artists. They need no identity to pull off their scams. Indeed, a lack of identity can be advantageous to them. And this means that legal tools such as the DNC list or the TCPA (which I turn to below), which are premised on the ability to take legal action against bad actors who can be identified and who have assets than can be attached through legal proceedings, are wholly ineffective against these newfangled robocallers.

The TCPA Sucks

The TCPA is the first law that was adopted to fight unwanted phone calls. Adopted in 1992, it made it illegal to call people using autodialers or prerecorded messages without prior express consent. (The details have more nuance than this, but that’s the gist.) It also created a private right of action with significant statutory damages of up to $1,500 per call.

Importantly, the justification for the TCPA wasn’t merely “telemarketing sucks.” Had it been, the TCPA would have had a serious problem: telemarketing, although exceptionally disliked, is speech, which means that it is protected by the First Amendment. Rather, the TCPA was enacted primarily upon two grounds. First, telemarketers were invading the privacy of individuals’ homes. The First Amendment is license to speak; it is not license to break into someone’s home and force them to listen. And second, telemarketing calls could impose significant real costs on the recipients of calls. At the time, receiving a telemarketing call could, for instance, cost cellular customers several dollars; and due to the primitive technologies used for autodialing, these calls would regularly tie up residential and commercial phone lines for extended periods of time, interfere with emergency calls, and fill up answering machine tapes.

It is no secret that the TCPA was not particularly successful. As the technologies for making robocalls improved throughout the 1990s and their costs went down, firms only increased their use of them. And we were still in a world of analog telephones, and Caller ID was still a new and not universally-available technology, which made it exceptionally difficult to bring suits under the TCPA. Perhaps more important, while robocalls were annoying, they were not the omnipresent fact of life that they are today: cell phones were still rare; most of these calls came to landline phones during dinner where they were simply ignored.

As discussed above, the first generation of robocallers and telemarketers quickly died off following adoption of the DNC registry.

And the TCPA is proving no more effective during this second generation of robocallers. This is unsurprising. Callers who are willing to blithely ignore the DNC registry are just as willing to blithely ignore the TCPA. Every couple of months the FCC or FTC announces a large fine — millions or tens of millions of dollars — against a telemarketing firm that was responsible for making millions or tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of calls over a multi-month period. At a time when there are over 4 billion of these calls made every month, such enforcement actions are a drop in the ocean.

Which brings us to the FIrst Amendment and the TCPA, presented in very cursory form here (see the paper for more detailed analysis). First, it must be acknowledged that the TCPA was challenged several times following its adoption and was consistently upheld by courts applying intermediate scrutiny to it, on the basis that it was regulation of commercial speech (which traditionally has been reviewed under that more permissive standard). However, recent Supreme Court opinions, most notably that in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, suggest that even the commercial speech at issue in the TCPA may need to be subject to the more probing review of strict scrutiny — a conclusion that several lower courts have reached.

But even putting the question of whether the TCPA should be reviewed subject to strict or intermediate scrutiny, a contemporary facial challenge to the TCPA on First Amendment grounds would likely succeed (no matter what standard of review was applied). Generally, courts are very reluctant to allow regulation of speech that is either under- or over-inclusive — and the TCPA is substantially both. We know that it is under-inclusive because robocalls have been a problem for a long time and the problem is only getting worse. And, at the same time, there are myriad stories of well-meaning companies getting caught up on the TCPA’s web of strict liability for trying to do things that clearly should not be deemed illegal: sports venues sending confirmation texts when spectators participate in text-based games on the jumbotron; community banks getting sued by their own members for trying to send out important customer information; pharmacies reminding patients to get flu shots. There is discussion to be had about how and whether calls like these should be permitted — but they are unquestionably different in kind from the sort of telemarketing robocalls animating the TCPA (and general public outrage).

In other words the TCPA prohibits some amount of desirable, Constitutionally-protected, speech in a vainglorious and wholly ineffective effort to curtail robocalls. That is a recipe for any law to be deemed an unconstitutional restriction on speech under the First Amendment.

Good News: Things Don’t Need to Suck!

But there is another, more interesting, reason that the TCPA would likely not survive a First Amendment challenge today: there are lots of alternative approaches to addressing the problem of robocalls. Interestingly, the FCC itself has the ability to direct implementation of some of these approaches. And, more important, the FCC itself is the greatest impediment to some of them being implemented. In the language of the First Amendment, restrictions on speech need to be narrowly tailored. It is hard to say that a law is narrowly tailored when the government itself controls the ability to implement more tailored approaches to addressing a speech-related problem. And it is untenable to say that the government can restrict speech to address a problem that is, in fact, the result of the government’s own design.

In particular, the FCC regulates a great deal of how the telephone network operates, including over the protocols that carriers use for interconnection and call completion. Large parts of the telephone network are built upon protocols first developed in the era of analog phones and telephone monopolies. And the FCC itself has long prohibited carriers from blocking known-scam calls (on the ground that, as common carriers, it is their principal duty to carry telephone traffic without regard to the content of the calls).

Fortunately, some of these rules are starting to change. The Commission is working to implement rules that will give carriers and their customers greater ability to block calls. And we are tantalizingly close to transitioning the telephone network away from its traditional unauthenticated architecture to one that uses a strong cyrptographic infrastructure to provide fully authenticated calls (in other words, Caller ID that actually works).

The irony of these efforts is that they demonstrate the unconstitutionality of the TCPA: today there are better, less burdensome, more effective ways to deal with the problems of uncouth telemarketers and robocalls. At the time the TCPA was adopted, these approaches were technologically infeasible, so the its burdens upon speech were more reasonable. But that cannot be said today. The goal of the FCC and legislators (both of whom are looking to update the TCPA and its implementation) should be less about improving the TCPA and more about improving our telecommunications architecture so that we have less need for cludgel-like laws in the mold of the TCPA.

 

It is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment that the government may not penalize private speech merely because it disapproves of the message it conveys.

The Federal Circuit handed down a victory for free expression today — in the commercial context no less. At issue was the Lanham Act’s § 2(a) prohibition of trademark registrations that

[c]onsist[] of or comprise[] immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.

The court, sitting en banc, held that the “disparaging” provision is an unconstitutional violation of free expression, and that trademarks will indeed be protected by the First Amendment. Although it declined to decide whether the other prohibitions actually violated the First Amendment, the opinion contained a very strong suggestion to future panels that this opinion likely applies in that context as well.

In many respects the opinion was not all that surprising (particularly if you’ve read my thoughts on the subject here and here ). However given that it was a predecessor Court of Customs and Patent Appeals decision, In Re McGinley, that once held that First Amendment concerns were not implicated at all by § 2(a) because “it is clear that the … refusal to register appellant’s mark does not affect his right to use it” — totally ignoring of course the chilling effects on speech — it was by no means certain that this decision would come out correctly decided.

Today’s holding vacated a decision from a three-judge panel that, earlier this year, upheld the ill-fated “disparaging” prohibition. From just a cursory reading of § 2(a), it should be a no-brainer that it clearly implicates the content of speech — if not a particular view point — and should get at least some First Amendment scrutiny. However, the earlier three-judge opinion  gave all of three paragraphs to this consideration — one of which was just a quotation from McGinley. There, the three-judge panel rather tersely concluded that the First Amendment argument was “foreclosed by our precedent.”

Thus it was with pleasure that I read the Federal Circuit as it today acknowledged that “[m]ore than thirty years have passed since the decision in McGinley, and in that time both the McGinley decision and our reliance on it have been widely criticized[.]” The core of the First Amendment analysis is fairly straightforward: barring “disparaging” marks from registration is neither content neutral nor viewpoint neutral, and is therefore subject to strict scrutiny (which it fails). The court notes that McGinley’s First Amendment analysis was “cursory” (to put it mildly), and was decided before a fully developed body of commercial speech doctrine had emerged. Overall, the opinion is a good example of subtle, probing First Amendment analysis, wherein the court really grasps that merely labeling speech as “commercial” does not somehow magically strip away any protected expressive content.

In fact, perhaps the most important and interesting material has to do with this commercial speech analysis. The court acknowledges that the government’s policy against “disparaging” marks is targeting the expressive aspects of trademarks and not the more easily regulable “transactional” aspects (such as product information, pricing, etc.)— to look at § 2(a) otherwise would not make sense as the government is rather explicitly trying to stop certain messages because of their noncommercial aspects. And the court importantly acknowledges the Supreme Court’s admonition that “[a] consumer’s concern for the free flow of commercial speech often may be far keener than his concern for urgent political dialogue” ( although I might go so far as to hazard a guess that commercial speech is more important that political speech, most of the time, to most people, but perhaps I am just cynical).

The upshot of the Federal Circuit’s new view of trademarks and “commercial speech” reinforces the notion that regulations and laws that are directed toward “commercial speech” need to be very narrowly focused on the actual “commercial” message — pricing, source, etc. — and cannot veer into controlling the “expressive” aspects without justification under strict scrutiny. Although there is nothing terrible new or shocking here, the opinion ties together a variety of the commercial speech doctrines, gives much needed clarity to trademark registration, and reaffirms a sensible view of commercial speech law.

And, although I may be reading too deeply based on my preferences, I think the opinion is quietly staking out a useful position for commercial speech cases going forward—at least to a speech maximalist like myself. In particular, it explicitly relies upon the “unconstitutional conditions” doctrine for the proposition that the benefits of government programs cannot be granted upon a condition that a party only engage in “good” or “approved” commercial speech.  As the world becomes increasingly interested in hate speech regulation,  and our college campuses more interested in preparing a generation of”safe spacers” than of critically thinking adults, this will undoubtedly become an important arrow in a speech defender’s quiver.