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Can Social Media Sites Ban Hate Speech?

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By Christopher Coble, Esq. on June 13, 2016 3:57 PM

For some, the internet is a venue for people to air the thoughts they would never publicly say in real life. Others see social media as an escape from the bigotry they face on a day-to-day basis. Balancing the free speech interests of some with the safe space interests of others is often an impossible task.

But the European Commission thinks it has an answer. The EU announced it is working with Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, among others, to create a code of conduct for social media posting in an effort to curb online hate speech in Europe. Europe has very different free speech protections than the United States, so could a similar ban on hate speech work in America?

The Euros

The new agreement sets out guidelines for a "notice-and-action" procedure that would begin when someone notifies a "hosting service provider" like social media sites about illegal content on the internet. This can be anything from racist comments to child abuse content or even spam. The commission is asking hosting service provider to be responsible for taking action against the illegal content by removing the content or disabling access to it. The goal for social media sites in Europe is to remove illegal hate speech within 24 hours of notification.

The issue then becomes how you define hate speech. As the Commission notes:

Freedom of expression is a core European value which must be preserved. The European Court of Human Rights set out the important distinction between content that "offends, shocks or disturbs the State or any sector of the population" and content that contains genuine and serious incitement to violence and hatred. The Court has made clear that States may sanction or prevent the latter.

The U.S.

Generally speaking, Americans enjoy a bit more freedom of speech than Europeans. The First Amendment has been interpreted broadly, even when it comes to racist, sexist, homophobic, and other bigoted speech. But that doesn't mean you can say whatever you want on social media.

Threats of violence, whether made on Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat can get you arrested. But only if they were intended as threats -- the Supreme Court ruled that violent Facebook posts are not a crime unless they are intended as threats. And there may not be a way for social media to erase racist memes from American users.

It's hard to ignore hate speech online, but unless social media sites decide on their own to be more aggressive about policing their users, there may not be much the law can do about it.

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