Two important decisions came down this morning at the U.S. Supreme Court that upheld the important protections for all web sites (including the big social media sites) from liability based on what people post on their sites. The court held in Twitter v. Taamneh that web sites can’t be guilty of “aiding and abetting” criminal activity just because their sites were used by terrorist organizations, and in Gonzalez v. Google that there was no reason to determine if YouTube could be responsible when its algorithm decides to “recommend” videos that terrorist groups might use to recruit members.
Both cases are controversial, but both are important wins. Of course, nobody likes the idea that terrorists can plot attacks on social media and can get their posts distributed based on “likes.” But a decision that would have held the sites liable for these activities would have simply made speech on the Internet unrealistic for anyone who cannot afford to parse through every post on their site and somehow know if the poster has bad intentions. Free speech does come with some costs, and that has long been acknowledged in the history of First Amendment jurisprudence. You don’t have to approve of a neo-Nazi march through Skokie, Ill., to recognize that the right to speak should not be regulated by the government.
It’s tempting to point out that these cases aren’t really about traditionally speech, but facilitating others’ speech, and they involve multi-billion-dollar companies like YouTube and Twitter. But speech cases have often concerned the interests of other speakers, like when people have tried to hold bookstores accountable for what was written in a book they sold. Even the seminal libel case of New York Times v. Sullivan involved not the speech of the newspaper, but of an advertiser who wanted to let the world know what was happening to protesters and reformers in the South during the civil rights struggle. And Section 230’s protections are essential to the “little guy” publishers, who could be devastated and run out of business by lawsuits over something they never really stated themselves. Overall, it was a very good day for speech at the high court.