That which shall not be named

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Wkimedia Commons/Ralf Roletschek

On March 25, some Twitter users found that many marijuana-related search terms were being blocked by the platform’s search engine. In addition to marijuana, users found that sex-related terms, like “porn” and “balls,” as well as other drug terms, like “LSD,” were also blocked.

Activist and marijuana journalist Tom Angell quickly responded with a petition on change.org asking Twitter to “stop censoring searches for ‘marijuana’ tweets.” By Tuesday morning, searches for marijuana were re-enabled. Except for an announcement earlier in the month stating they would be testing out new “sensitive content filters,” Twitter has been quiet about the 72-hour occurrence.

People who sell medical and recreational cannabis in states where it’s legal have become accustomed to seeing their social media pages go dark unexpectedly. Selling or using cannabis for any reason is still federally illegal and companies like Facebook, Google, Instagram and Apple remain cautious of being held liable for cannabis content users post or promote.

The conundrum of how best to navigate the controversial issue is not relegated to the online world. For example, in 2013 Colorado passed a law restricting the visibility of weed-themed magazines, but it was quickly overturned in a rule by state marijuana regulators, which was subsequently upheld by a federal judge. Why? Because it is unconstitutional for the government to engage in censorship.

The word censor came about in the 1530s. There were two appointed “censors,” Roman magistrates who oversaw public morals through a suppression of any words, images and ideas deemed offensive. Roughly, 487 years later, free speech is a tenet of democracy, existing as a protection against precisely such exercises of authority. And, in modern democracy, which is afforded an unprecedented freedom of information and speech by way of the internet, the oppression of anything by anyone not only seems outdated, but an outright threat to the freedom of choice and speech in the 21st century.

Every year, in honor of National Library Week (April 9 to 15), the American Library Association (ALA) releases its State of America’s Libraries Report that includes a list of the top 10 most challenged books — a “challenge” being an attempt to remove or restrict materials from a library or curriculum, based upon the objections of a person or group.

The ALA, an otherwise apolitical organization, is unabashed when it comes to its staunch anti-censorship stance, saying in a recently released video that “each request to remove a book eliminates the voices of storytellers and dismisses the needs of readers who find themselves in those pages. Most threats are unsuccessful, thanks to the teachers, librarians, authors and even kids who rise up against censorship in libraries, and their words have power. These resilient readers know that banned books benefit our worldview, our empathy and our democracy.”    

It is important to note that while censorship by the government is unconstitutional, censorship by individuals or groups of private citizens is a protected act of free speech, thus the right of someone to “challenge” a book. But there is a big difference between the application of that protection to a private individual and to a private entity, especially the likes of Twitter, Google or Facebook. The arguments of social media as public utility have their practical limits, but in that they offer an increasingly essential vehicle for free speech, they ought to at least adhere to constitutional protections against censorship.

Interestingly, the increasing threat of fake news seems to be pointing our progress in the opposite direction as these companies begin to introduce ways to integrate “fact checking” into internet services. I admit it’s tempting to put the onus of verification on the internet itself, so that the reader need not be bothered with critical thought or investigation. But isn’t there an inherent danger in outsourcing truth to “higher authorities?”

Propaganda — the OG fake news — originated in 18th century Italy with the institution of the congregatio de propaganda fide, a committee of cardinals in charge of Catholic missionary work i.e., the repression of free speech in a coordinated effort of church and state. From their perspective, truth as verified by an authority prevented the liberal exchange of ideas that threatened the cohesiveness of its congregation. Back then, verified truth and censorship were tools of oppression. Is it any different now?

In his 2012 article “On Censorship” for the New Yorker, Salman Rushdie writes, “When censorship intrudes on art, it becomes the subject; the art becomes ‘censored art,’ and that is how the world sees and understands it … The assumption of guilt replaces the assumption of innocence.”

So when, even if just for a moment, Twitter disallows its users from using certain words, it infuses them with moral judgement. It is not just an act of censorship, but also of moralistic prohibition — an imposition on freedom by way of authoritarian decree. I think here is where we take a note from our friendly neighborhood librarians and not only refuse to be censored, but to celebrate that refusal by invoking our right to speak freely, and continuing to insist on the democratic ideal that it is precisely those freedoms that can guide us toward truth.