Could these three situations, ripped from this month’s headlines, have something in common? Consider:
A Silicon Valley billionaire bankrolls a lawsuit that may put Gawker out of business. It looks like revenge for being outed as gay by the gossipy news site, but he prefers to call it philanthropy.
The chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee demands an accounting from Facebook about how it chooses what news stories to present to its billion daily users. And, voilà! — he gets it.
Edward Snowden, writing from his exile in Russia, calls for new protections for government whistleblowers. The old ones, he says, obviously don’t work.
What ties them together is something worth considering on this national holiday: New threats to free speech in the digital age.
No nation in the world, or in human history, has protections for free speech like ours, built not only on the First Amendment but on decades of legal doctrine hammered out in cases including the Pentagon Papers and New York Times v. Sullivan.
But what happens when new technology — yes, that whole Internet thing — comes along?
Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University and a First Amendment lawyer, sees the big picture as well as anyone. And he’s concerned.
“We are entering a very new era of questions” about free speech and the press, he told me. “And there’s a great need to rethink and to devise new principles.”
When millions of sensitive documents (or hacked Sony Pictures emails) can be distributed to the world in an instant, that changes things.
So does the unparalleled dominance of Facebook as a news distributor, and the privacy issues that arise when a Google search turns up information — possibly false — that can damage individuals’ lives.
Columbia and the Miami-based Knight Foundation are putting $60 million behind a research and litigation center, the just-announced Knight First Amendment Institute. This visionary venture comes at a perfect time.
“One of the problems with defending free speech,” the author Salman Rushdie once said, “is you often have to defend people that you find to be outrageous and unpleasant and disgusting.”
Which brings us to the matter of Gawker and Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal. Gawker was smacked over the head recently when Hulk Hogan, the celebrity wrestler, was awarded $140 million from the site by a sympathetic home-state jury in an invasion-of-privacy suit.
Years ago, Gawker published a video of Hogan (or, actually, his real-life personage, Terry Bollea) having sex with the wife of his best friend. Tawdry, no doubt.
Gawker is appealing the verdict, but the legal costs and damages could put it out of business. And now we know that Thiel, a card-carrying member of the 1 percent club, has been bankrolling the Hogan lawsuit. Gawker outed him as gay a number of years back, and Thiel decided to take his revenge in court — but indirectly, through the Hogan suit and others.
If you find yourself wanting to cheer Thiel on, stop to think. Gawker’s offerings certainly aren’t the Pentagon Papers, or the revelations about spying on citizens by the National Security Agency. But when a vindictive billionaire can muscle his way into a lawsuit with the intention of putting a media company out of business, there’s reason to worry.
Late last week, First Look Media said it would join the suit to support Gawker on press-freedom grounds. First Look, started by Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, owns the Intercept, whose journalists include Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill.
Separately, Bollinger and others are alarmed about the idea of congressional intrusion into Facebook’s practices.
The social-media behemoth came under scrutiny this month after claims by employees that they were encouraged to suppress conservative views in its news feed. (Notably, this revelation came from Gizmodo, an offshoot of Gawker.) Soon after, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota — the Republican chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee — had some pointed questions for Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, readily obliged as part of his appeasement offensive — which also included getting together with conservative bigwigs to hear their demands.
Ken Paulson, director of the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center, told me that congressional meddling in Facebook’s editorial practices would be “dangerous, frightening and wrong.” He sees this as a case of government trying to police ideas.
“Congress has a history of investigating content that it can’t legally control,” Paulson said. “That’s why we’ve had hearings on video games, rock and rap music, and comic books. We need to be vigilant about regulation through intimidation.”
He’s right. And so is Snowden, who was appalled by new revelations about how Thomas Drake was retaliated against when he tried to come forward with concerns about certain questionable practices by his employer, the NSA. Snowden is a traitor to some, a hero to others, but his leaks certainly led to a crucial debate about government surveillance and overreach.
America has incomparable free-speech protections. In this new era, we need to keep it that way.
For more by Margaret Sullivan, visit wapo.st/sullivan