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Why kicking Alex Jones off social media is not legally censorship

iTunes, Facebook, Spotify and YouTube have all removed conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ audio and video content from their platforms, saying he violated their hate-speech policies. P.J. Tobia takes a closer look at his media operation, and William Brangham examines the pushback and legal questions with Lyrissa Lidsky, dean of the University of Missouri School of Law.

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  • William Brangham:

     He may be America’s best known conspiracy theorist, but this week, Alex Jones’ content will be a little harder to find.

    That’s because iTunes, Facebook, Spotify and YouTube all removed his audio and video material from their platforms, saying Jones violated their policies on hate speech.

    The “NewsHour”‘s P.J. Tobia has more.

  • P.J. Tobia:

     For more than 20 years, Jones has screamed.

  • Alex Jones:

    What is Hitler? What is Stalin? What is Mao?

  • P.J. Tobia:

     And shouted.

  • Alex Jones:

     You will never, never defeat the human spirit. You will never defeat God. You will never win.

  • P.J. Tobia:

     On the way to winning over millions of fans of his nationally syndicated radio program, online video broadcasts, and Infowars Web site.

    With his slogan, “There’s a war on for your mind,” Jones specializes in conspiracy theories. Perhaps his most infamous claim, that the school shooting in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, was a hoax perpetrated by the government.

  • Alex Jones:

     Sandy Hook is synthetic, completely fake, with actors, in my view, manufactured.

  • P.J. Tobia:

     Victims’ families have sued Jones for defamation. He’s long supported President Trump, who appeared on one of his programs as a candidate in December of 2015.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down. You will be very, very impressed, I hope. And I think we will be speaking a lot.

  • P.J. Tobia:

     Jones’ media operation is funded in part through sales at his Infowars store.

  • Alex Jones:

     I’m doing free shipping on everything, whether it’s one Hillary for prison shirt or a Bill Clinton rape shirt.

  • P.J. Tobia:

     He combines his sales pitch for nutritional supplements with political ideology.

  • Alex Jones:

     On record to be some of the best shots we have got at countering and blocking the globalist operations. So, again, am I a beach body? No. Am I Tarzan? No. Am I some Olympic swimmer? No. The point is, I’m a big guy.

  • P.J. Tobia:

     This morning, Jones broadcasted a Periscope message in response to his being kicked off the social media platforms.

  • Alex Jones:

     They disappeared me, like I have been airbrushed out of those old Soviet photos with Stalin, and as he killed each person, he had them airbrushed out. If this isn’t “1984,” baby, I don’t know what is.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    : Jones has spawned hundreds of imitators, mostly right-wing, anti-government conspiracy theorists peddling merchandise and the real story the government doesn’t want you to know about.

  • Mark Dice:

    Love him or hate him, Alex is like the canary in the coal mine. And these big tech companies conspiring together to de-platform him on the same day changes everything.

  • P.J. Tobia:

    Aside from his Web site, Jones’ radio show is syndicated to over 160 stations nationwide.

    Despite Jones’ ban from YouTube and the resulting loss of over two million subscribers on the platform, Infowars contributors remain a presence on YouTube and Facebook. There are still many platforms for Alex Jones to wage what he sees as a war for American minds.

    For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m P.J. Tobia.

  • William Brangham:

     We take a closer look now at the growing pushback against Alex Jones with Lyrissa Lidsky. She’s the dean of the University of Missouri School of Law, and has been following these moves and other legal actions against Alex Jones.

    Dean Lidsky, thank you very much for being here.

    All of these social media platforms are taking Alex Jones off their sites. And they’re arguing that he violates their hate speech rules. I wonder what your reaction to that is.

  • Lyrissa Lidsky:

     There are two things really that need to be understood.

    One is, the First Amendment only protects citizens against restrictions on their speech by the government and government actors. And platforms like Facebook or Google are not government actors. So the First Amendment simply doesn’t speak to their conduct.

    The other thing that people sometimes misunderstand is that hate speech itself is not a legal category, although it may overlap with things like true threats or defamation that are legal categories.

    And so the government cannot broadly restrict anything that it might label hate speech, but platforms can if they wish to.

  • William Brangham:

     Twitter’s CEO, as we saw, Jack Dorsey, the CEO of the company, said he’s taking the opposite of that approach. They’re not banning Alex Jones.

    He wrote, “We didn’t suspend Alex Jones or Infowars yesterday. We know that’s hard for many, but the reason is simple. He hasn’t violated our rules. We will enforce if he does.”

    And, as you’re saying, that’s absolutely within Twitter’s right.

  • Lyrissa Lidsky:

     It is absolutely within Twitter’s rights. And it’s also within user rights to put pressure on Twitter for that.

    But Jack Dorsey this morning in a tweet said that what he expects to happen is for journalists and others to counteract Alex Jones’ falsehoods with true, factual information and to drown out his hateful and distorted speech with the true, factual information that they find.

  • William Brangham:

     So, when Alex Jones and his supporters argue that this is just outright censorship, you say they may feel that they’re being censored, but there really is no standing that he has to argue legally that he’s being censored?

  • Lyrissa Lidsky:

     Yes.

    Censorship is a legal term for when the government restricts your speech. And he’s not being censored. There are a lot of people calling for the platforms to take him down, but that doesn’t count as legal censorship.

  • William Brangham:

     What do you make of the slippery slope argument that some people have been arguing, that, yes, these social media sites have become such important arbiters and dispensers of news and information in our world, but once they start picking and choosing, that that is a problematic move for society?

  • Lyrissa Lidsky:

     Well, it’s complicated.

    I am an ardent, ardent defender of free speech. And I am concerned about the ability of Facebook, for example, to pick and choose what speech is on its network.

    But I’m not concerned when they make a reasoned determination, as they have to, that the kind of fabricated lies that are causing harm to individuals need to be taken down from their site.

    I don’t think Alex Jones is a hard case, per se, but I would hope, for free expression purposes, that platforms would go case by case.

  • William Brangham:

     Alex Jones is also facing some challenges in the legal realm. He’s being sued for libel and defamation, one, as we mentioned before, about the parents of some of the children who were killed at Sandy Hook, and another by a man who filmed the video of the car hitting the counterprotester at the Charlottesville white supremacist rally last year.

    What do those individuals need to prove in order to win their case in court?

  • Lyrissa Lidsky:

     OK, so in order to win, they need to prove that Alex Jones made a defamatory statement, which is a statement that would tend to harm reputation.

    In both cases, he claimed that they were crisis actors who in one instance invented the death of their children, and, in the other instance, he claims that the person who filmed the car driving into the protester in Charlottesville had himself been part of the incident, had been somewhat responsible for her death and had fabricated it.

    So those are clearly statements that tend to harm reputation, identifying these people that are published to an audience of millions. And then after that, there’s a question. There is a novel legal question as to what the plaintiffs must prove in addition.

    And that question hinges on whether the — whether the parents of the murdered children are called public figures or they’re private figures, and whether the eyewitness who filmed the Charlottesville killing was a public figure or private figure.

    We have more leeway to criticize people who are have thrust themselves into the forefront of public controversies, celebrities and our government officials, our public officials. We have less leeway with regard to people who are just living their lives, private individuals.

    Let me add that even if the parents and Mr. Gilmore are determined to be public figures, they are likely to win lawsuits against Mr. Jones because he fabricated lies that tarnished their reputations and caused them tangible harm.

  • William Brangham:

    Well, those are certainly cases we’re going to be following quite closely.

    Lyrissa Lidsky, dean of the University of Missouri School of Law, thank you very much.

  • Lyrissa Lidsky:

    Thank you.

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