Facebook is under fire this week after it was discovered that the company has allowed Rose City Antifa, a violent group associated with riots for many years, to maintain a Facebook page despite the company’s controversial program to take down certain sites. As will come as no surprise to many on this blog, I would not have the page taken down on free speech grounds. My greatest fear is not Antifa (which I have criticized for years) but the growing censorship of the Internet. While I recently testified about Antifa, and specifically Rose City Antifa, as part of a violent anti-free speech movement, I have opposed declaring them terrorist organizations and believe that their speech should be protected. While Facebook is a private company not subject to the First Amendment’s limits, it should adhere to free speech values on the Internet.
RCA is arguably the oldest Antifa group in the United States and was founded in Portland. In 2013, various groups that were part of The Anti-Racist Action Network (ARA), including RCA, formed a new coordinating organization referred to as the “Torch Network.” This lack of structure not only appealed to the anarchist elements in the movement but served the practical benefit of evading law enforcement and lawsuits. While some have attempted to hold such members accountable, like journalist Andy Ngo who sued RCA for assaulting him, such lawsuits struggle with finding witnesses and assets for an effective case.
Under Facebook’s “Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy” the company pledged to “address organizations and movements that have demonstrated significant risks to public safety.” It has removed a number of far right and far left groups.
We have previously discussed how governments and politicians have demanded greater and greater censorship of the Internet, which is the greatest vehicle of free speech ever developed. The erosion of free speech on social media and the Internet includes calls from leading Democratic leaders for years to implement private censorship of political speech, a view supported by academics who have declared that “China was right” about censorship. Recently, Democratic Nominee Joe Biden pushed for censoring statements by Trump and others opposing mail-in voting.
My views of free speech are well known. RCA is an extremist group but it also engages in protected speech. We need to criminally address its conduct, not its speech. It is the difference between advocating violence and acting violently. If the site is actively arranging attacks or directing riotings, it is more than just speech. It generally does not do that. It calls for counter demonstrations on such sites but leaves the violent elements to local members. Once you start censoring such sites for the actions of some members, it puts the Internet on a slippery slope of speech regulation. Many organizations, including Black Lives Matter, have had violent followers but there are still important parts of a non-violent debate over issues like racial justice.
However, there is another reason why these pages should not be censored. It is far better to have such groups operating openly where they can be monitored. We saw in Germany that suppressing neo-Nazi groups just forced them underground while doing little to deter their expansion. It is better for law enforcement and others to have these groups more visible. On Facebook, these groups can be challenged and their extreme views exposed. When forced underground, the groups claim that they are victims of “fascists” and their hateful views grow unimpeded in radical echo-chambers.
Antifa is arguably the most successful anti-free speech movement in modern history. It has the direct or indirect support of some academics and many students. Indeed, the recent controversy over statements made by a Connecticut professor and a Rhode Island professor on the killing of a conservative counter protester reflects how such views are become more common. Some of these individuals oppose the free speech protections that we afforded them, at least when extended to those with opposing views. However, they are the price of true free speech.