Long before the United States and its constitution existed, philosophical arguments have existed concerning the ethics of free speech. The First Amendment of the US Constitution attempted to solve these issues by being a catch-all for the legalisation of free speech that could only be restricted in the most extreme of circumstances.
In the 21st century, free speech has been under attack as much from the private sector as the public sector. In a country like the United States that has a First Amendment, there can be no reasonable justification to limit free speech beyond that which the Constitution already provides for in the most extreme of circumstances. When it comes to the private sector, things get far more complicated.
Free speech rights versus property rights
In private sector censorship, one necessarily faces a stand-off between the right to private property (in this case intellectual property) and the First Amendment. For example, one can hand out leaflets in the street and make political speeches, but one cannot do so in a person’s home without the consent of the property owner or legal occupier.
Youtube’s now infamous censorship of videos that do not meet its ever changing and ever more arbitrary standards is technically speaking legal because Youtube acts as the digital intellectual property equivalent of a physical storage facility that has the legal right to refuse service. Making matters more complicated, in the 20th century both state governments in the US and the US Federal government passed laws prohibiting the refusal of private sector service based on a variety of tests, the most notable ones being established in the 1964 Civil Rights Act which prohibited the refusal of service in the private sector based on racist discrimination.
Today, even the most avid proponents of private property rights tend to agree that it is correct to enforce laws which make it an offence to disallow someone from buying food at a restaurant or items in a shop because of the colour of his or her skin. Such laws are not overly restrictive on property rights and they serve an obvious benefit to social cohesion and domestic peace. Moreover, few people in the 21st century would even seek to discriminate against people on a racial basis, thus demonstrating how far from being restrictive, civil rights legislation is actually in-line with the sentiments of most people in the 21st century.
With this in mind, is it time for an intellectual property civil rights act?
The clear answer should be yes. When a private entity whose major purpose is to store rather than create content such as Youtube reaches a certain number of users/viewers, laws should be established prohibiting the censorship or economic discrimination against any type of video with the Constitutionally allowed exceptions of those which openly advocate violence. This means that for the vast majority of videos, Youtube should not be allowed to censor, curtail access or de-monetise anymore than the owner of a self-storage warehouse can prohibit selling space to people based on the colour of their skin.
Yesterday, at the Youtube corporate headquarters in California, a woman called Nasim Aghdam opened fire on employees in an act of criminal violence that is being linked to her previous statements voicing anger at Youtube’s alleged censorship and de-monetisation of her videos. From what is being reported, her videos were a combination of physical exercise demonstrations, commentary on animal rights issues and vegan cooking. While her videos are now unavailable to watch for understandable police matters, the subject matter she covered does not imply anything out of the ordinary insofar as activism is concerned. Certainly, there is nothing about animal rights activism, exercise tapes and vegan food that necessarily implies an advocacy of violence.
An opportunity turned into tragedy
Nasim Aghdam could have been an advocate for an intellectual property civil rights act, but instead for reasons that are not yet known, she turned to an act of indiscriminate violence which has been and must continue to be universally condemned. The three victims she shot at remain alive while she died of what is being reported as a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
This was a tragic scenario that no one needed, including Aghdam’s father who warned police that his daughter had travelled a long distance to the area near Youtube headquarters for reasons he believed to have been suspicious. Had police been able to stop her before she shot at employees at Youtube, the entire scenario could have been much different.
Now can we turn a tragedy into an opportunity?
Throughout history, those who feel they are being censored often become agitated. In most cases, people react with protests, peaceful civil disobedience or in some cases, they form their own political movements to try and increase protections for free speech. In tragic cases, people get pushed through the cracks and eventually fall through them. Clearly, Aghdam’s violent reaction was not only illegal, inappropriate and tragic but may well have been the reaction of an unsound mind to a situation that could have and should have been addressed in a non-violent manner.
When all is said and done, had an intellectual property civil rights act been on the books, Aghdam may well have not been pushed over the edge and she could have addressed whatever psychological issues she clearly had with professional medical assistance. All the while, the free speech issue in the private sector could have been solved once and for all.
Whenever a tragic event like a public shooting takes place, there are voices raised calling for more restrictions whether those restrictions be on legal free speech or legal firearms ownership. Such repressive measures only serve to exacerbate existing problems because they do not tackle the root causes of the initial problem.
Instead, free speech should be protected in a more robust way in order to give better protections to sane and non-violent individuals who seek to express themselves in the public eye. This will help to make free-speech a legal non-issue and will allow those with psychological deficiencies to have their problems constructively addressed without conflating the issue with the rights of the sane and healthy majority.
The same is true for the legal ownership of firearms in a country like the United States. As the majority of legal firearms owners use their weapons for sport or self-defence, one must focus the debate on why some people use weapons whether guns, knives or vehicles for destructive purposes, rather than focus the debate on the mere mechanics of the violent act in question.
Here, one would need to address issues far more complex than gun ownership including poor psychological health, poor educational standards and perhaps most importantly, the proliferation of dangerous narcotics, both the legal and illegal variety.
There will never be a perfect solution to ending all forms of violence, but there are concrete, cost effective and simple steps that can be taken to dramatically reduce acts of violence. The solutions involve discussing the deeper root causes of the problem rather than simply blaming people for having too many rights. Such blame games create vicious circles that only lead to more rather than less violence. Such vicious circles are detrimental to all of society, both the sane majority and the minority of people who need to live in a drug free environment where professional medical assistance is readily available.