Terrorists =/= Bloggers?

A CBS affiliate in Connecticut reported yesterday that Joe Lieberman, Senator and Chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, has asked Google to ban terrorist's writings on its Blogger platform. For those who are not necessarily blog-savvy, that is the platform you are reading this post on. It's ease of use and simplicity has brought blogging to the computer illiterate masses, including home chefs, armchair philosophers, amateur economists, and, well, homegrown terrorists. According to Lieberman, doing so would put Google's Blogger policies more in-line with those of other its other platforms, such as YouTube, on which it has banned terror-related content.

There are at least two major concerns that many have with Lieberman's approach. The first is obviously the potential impingement on First Amendment rights. While these rights are of course not without limitations, they are nonetheless some of the most carefully protected freedoms in America. Potential violations of freedom of speech, religious freedom, freedom of the press, freedom to protest, all of which fall under the protective umbrella of the First Amendment, are implicated in Lieberman's approach

There is another concern that is less obvious, but also important; banning terrorist's blogs would create the unintended consequence of taking away a proven tool in locating notoriously difficult to find homegrown terrorists (Lieberman's letter ironically notes that a recent terror suspect was tracked down in part due to his blog).

Americans strongly backed the War on Terror in the wake of 9/11. Support has been eroded by the PATRIOT Act, the TSA and other intrusive government initiatives. Governmental mandates to private actors to ban words are not only unconstitutional, but as a practical matter they erode both the tools to fight terrorism and public support for important and valid anti-terror initiatives. This is a bad combination in a world where terrorism is still a clear and present danger.


  1. Anonymous1/12/11 11:55

    Well, BlawgConomics has managed to hit one of my pet peeves AND make an excellent argument in the same post. The peeve is when people argue the First Amendment does not protect Joe Liebeman's right to tell terrorists to shut the heck up. "Shut up" is also speech, and protected.

    Yes, he's a senator, so his words carrlenore weight because of his power and celebrity. But we do not protect speech less because it is MORE persuasive; that would stand the marketplace of ideas on its head. And Google, like BlawgConomics, has its own First Amendment right to decline to publish content. I cannot storm the storied offices of BlawgConomics and demand publication of my polemic; the First Amendment protects editorial discretion.

    But you also make an excellent point about the utility of tracking terrorists by their blogs. One of the great things about an open society is that if someone wants to bring "Death to America," they are free to say so, and the FBI is free to watch them a little more closely. Terrorism in the market of ideas will fail under the weight of its own hypocrisies; Leiberman should let it.

  2. Josh Sturtevant1/12/11 12:00

    Thanks for the comment.

    While I would agree wholeheartedly with you that Mr. Lieberman has as much right to tell terrorists to shut up as Google has to allow them to publish, I think that his words take on a different flavor because they were spoken, not as a citizen, but in his capacity as the Chair of the Homeland Security Committee.

    In other words, he was for all intents and purposes acting as 'the government' in this case, and I think that this feels a little different for me than the scenario you describe.

  3. Anonymous1/12/11 12:15

    Nope. The government gets to speak, too. The First Amendment is not a muzzle, it's a megaphone. Prior restraint on publication is a serious violation of the First Amendment, but saying: "don't publish that because it's a bad idea and bad for the country" is distinct from "you cannot publish that." Google's dealings with China should give it no trouble distinguishing between the two. I'm not against all censorship, but I am against censorship in the name of free speech, including censorship of the government. Free speech sometimes means letting people persuade others to can it.

  4. Josh Sturtevant1/12/11 12:25

    Game, set and match go to you on the subtle point you correctly identified...this is not a restraint but a request.

    I had tried to skirt around that a bit by throwing around the term potential, but perhaps I should have been clearer that this would only become unconstitutional if it were a direct cease and desist order.

    I still don't like the feel of it, perhaps because so often requests like this become de facto orders (it was in part due to government pressure that Google made the YouTube ban, news outlets refrained from showing certain images from the wars, etc.) However, as it stands right now, you are right.

    Can I assume you could come over to my side if this became a demand, a la what was seen in China? What about something short of that?

  5. Josh Sturtevant1/12/11 14:24

    While thinking about this a little more, it occurred to me (as is often the case with stories we post) that the more interesting question isn't directly related to the story, but to something more fundamental that the story implicates.

    In this case, that is the question, "Is there a point short of making a direct law or using direct force that government actions to restrict free speech can be unconstitutional?"

    I am getting at the gray area where the government doesn't force one to stop speaking (or publishing speech), but is so threatening that it is roughly the equivalent.

    Not so interested in cases here as theory...what do people think about this? I would be interested to hear from readers on this topic.