Free speech doesn’t mean that Alex Jones is entitled to a platform


(David Swanson/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

By James Mazarakis, Collegian Columnist

“I can’t talk right now. Alex Jones is making fun of my face.”

That’s how CNN’s Oliver Darcy humorously replied to a phone call, an uncomfortable grin emerging as Jones accused Darcy of being part of a modern-day Stasi. Jones was fixated on Darcy’s eyes, which he described as those of “a rat” and a “possum.”

The reporter said very little, aside from a few attempts to disengage and defuse the exchange. Jones took up nearly 10 minutes raving about censorship, mainstream media lies and indoctrination happening in such places as “bars and hotels,” all while blockading a hallway on Capitol Hill.

With such an outrageous business model filled with ad hominem and straw man attacks, it makes sense that mediation may be required on behalf of those who have been giving Jones an outlet. Yet the provocateur seemed vindicated by his subsequent ban on Twitter, the same platform to which this video was posted. This is his latest in a long string of platform bans starting with his app’s erasure from the Apple Store. Pundits from the right to the left used Jones’s word — “censorship” — to protest an apparent collusion of organizations to shut him down.

Censorship is a strong word. With the weight it carries, it cannot be confused with basic, self-regulating arbitration, an essential part of political discourse that typically spares us from cantankerous trolls of the likes of Jones. Being outraged by moderation diverts the focus of activists, particularly conservatives, away from policy and more toward demonizing the left, playing right into the hands of those who peddle fear and profit from division — just like Alex Jones himself.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has a very broad definition of censorship, describing it as a successful attempt to force one’s “personal political or moral values on others” by the government or a private group. However, there is a distinct difference between censorship by private and government institutions: the government can’t shut down the press, individuals or movements to block them out.

Without a doubt, protecting America from real censorship is an absolute priority. In countries with authoritarian governments, censorship can come in the form of journalist imprisonment, assassination of critics or heavy internet restrictions. But that’s a far cry from an individual like Alex Jones being squeezed out of media platforms run by private institutions. Alex Jones is still a free man who can still run his own website and talk show — he only lost the privilege of using the platforms of others.

If we are to call any attempt by organizations and individuals to moderate dialogue an act of censorship, we make social and journalistic institutions harder to navigate. After all, moderation is nothing new: sites have been eradicating “trolling” since the early days of social networking because it gets in the way of actual conversation and information. It’s the same principle in real life. If someone starts calling you names and screams at you relentlessly in your home, you can tell them to leave. If you are out in public, you may be asked to leave as well.

There’s room for small spats and the occasional heated fight, but “trolls” are defined by a pattern of hostility that permeates in the community. The government has no right to enforce that arbitration. But as an individual, a consumer of information, we may have standards we expect media outlets to hold us to. If America is waking up to the uselessness of the raves of provocateurs like Alex Jones, it is fitting that his presence will lose support on these privately-run platforms.

There is certainly some room for abuse, and I’m not saying there aren’t any instances of social media censoring groups. But real concerns tend to begin when the government gets involved. This summer, Facebook removed 32 liberal and conservative pages alleged to be fake accounts while its CEO Mark Zuckerberg was being pressed by government officials regarding Facebook’s role in election interference. If they really were fake and controlled by troll factories (which are real), I concur with the decision — but is this a sign the government can influence social media companies’ decisions by intimidation? Moreover, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement was reported earlier this year to be using Facebook data to track down potential undocumented immigrants. Questionable cooperation between the government and media companies is far worse an omen than private self-regulation.

That said, I argue holding popular accounts to a behavior policy, as in Jones’s case, isn’t the same ballpark as censorship. Whether these policies are applied equally is an open question.

Opposing the public condemnation of someone with a pattern of fear mongering, blatant bigotry and ludicrous fact skewing is not only irrelevant to the Constitution but harmful to a path of a better political atmosphere. It is not anti-American to want, as a consumer, standards in fact-checking and respectability. If we want a more perfect union, these lines need to be drawn. I’m drawing one at “eyes of a rat.”

James Mazarakis is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].