Thoughts on Free Speech

Here is some action on the free speech front, particularly involving the Internet and piracy and government efforts to impose control on both.

These offerings from our government are pertinent: the Senate’s Protect IP Act (PIPA) and the House of Representatives’ parallel effort, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).  Unfortunately, they’re not tightly written to address actual piracy, or theft of copyrighted material.  With their too-broad reach, each of these bills can also achieve the following (whether this potential use is deliberate or simply the result of routine political pandering and/or incompetence, I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader).

Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe suggests this:

SOPA provides that a complaining party can file a notice alleging that it is harmed by the activities occurring on the site “or portion thereof.”  Conceivably, an entire website containing tens of thousands of pages could be targeted if only a single page were accused of infringement. Such an approach would create severe practical problems for sites with substantial user-generated content, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and for blogs that allow users to post videos, photos, and other materials.


The notice-and-termination procedure…runs afoul of the “prior restraint” doctrine, because it delegates to a private party the power to suppress speech without prior notice and a judicial hearing. This provision of the bill would give complaining parties the power to stop online advertisers and credit card processors from doing business with a website, merely by filing a unilateral notice accusing the site of being “dedicated to theft of U.S. property” — even if no court has actually found any infringement.

Wow.  Guilt by accusation; we’ll sort out the damages from false or erroneous accusations later.  In the meantime, we’ll shut down the whole site, and RICO-like, cutoff the financial resources of the accused.  Solely on the accuser’s say-so; he don’t need no stinkin’ courts.

By closing an entire facility over an (alleged) infraction by one individual or involving just a few documents, an entire avenue of speech is shut down: not just the speech of the Web site’s operators, but the speech choices of those who wish to hear (read) what contributors to such a Web site has to say, on any subject.  Imagine a closely contested election in which a Web site favors one candidate over another.  One of those “other materials” is claimed by the other candidate to be harming his campaign.  Where might the greater harm be occurring?

Oh, but I’m overreacting.  Ex-Senator Chris Dodd (D, CT) has the answer.  The bills are only asking for the same power the People’s Republic of China has for Internet censorship:

When the Chinese told Google that they had to block sites or they couldn’t do [business] in their country, they managed to figure out how to block sites.


We don’t need any more free speech laws, or government intervention into free speech.  We have too much of this, already.  Besides, we already have a fine free speech law, one that doesn’t run to 2,000 or more pages worth of…speech:

Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press[.]

And it took our Founders only 14 words, and rather less than a single page, to write it.

Update: Added some final thoughts.

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