Free speech is not free of consequences

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The incident could have ended tragically.

St. Cloud police tried to disarm a black man in the early morning hours of June 15 and the gun went off. The bullet hit a cop and the man escaped, only to be caught and arrested a few minutes later.

Officer goes to the hospital for treatment of non-life-threatening injuries. Man with the gun goes to jail to await formal charges. No officer accused of unnecessarily using deadly force. No black man killed by cops.

The story should have ended there. But it didn’t.

Thanks to lies on social media claiming two black men had been shot by police, a large and unruly crowd descended on police headquarters. After protestors threw rocks at the building, police used tear gas to break up the crowd.

The next morning, Police Chief Blair Anderson bluntly blamed the rumors for the unrest.

“It’s very dangerous,” he said. “This is the type of thing that could have escalated. … This place could have been on fire over a lie.”

The pandemic of lies, threats and abuse flooding social media needs to be cured. This is not an argument about the First Amendment or censorship, which says “congress shall make no law.” That means the government. It does not mean Twitter or Facebook can’t keep crackpots and people making threats off their platforms.

Free speech means you can stand on your soapbox in the public square and say what you want. But you can’t libel, slander, threaten or endanger people without consequence.

Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall thinks it’s time for consequences for those who posted lies about the St. Cloud gun incident. Her office is considering possible charges against the people who initially spread the false information on social media that sparked two nights of riots in south St. Cloud. The challenge will be proving the lies were directly tied to the protesting and the damage that was done.

Good for Anderson and Kendall for calling out the lies. Their comments and threat of legal action do not endanger free speech. But they do remind us when you speak, you are responsible for the consequences of your words.

Liars and crackpots standing on soapboxes in the town square have been around for centuries. We’ve always believed “bad” speech will be drowned out by “good” speech. But with digital media, new high-tech soapboxes spread those words faster and farther so the good speech never catches up.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 immunizes websites from legal liability for the comments of their users. When Congress enacted Section 230, it wisely recognized that holding websites legally responsible for user-generated content would cripple the rapidly developing online world. The world has changed.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other websites that publish comments should face the same consequences for “free” speech as traditional publishers. The Department of Justice wants Congress to change the law so online platforms would face sanctions for a range of illicit conduct if they don’t block or delete it.

While we wait for Congress to act, Kendall should investigate and charge the liars who could have sparked violence in St. Cloud. She’s successfully led efforts to prosecute and convict sex traffickers, showing she’s not afraid to tackle big issues.

The rest of us can take action too. Learn to separate the fact from fiction, opinion from news and question the motives of the poster.

Author: Mike Knaak

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