First Amendment Rights vs. Hate Speech: Where Should We Draw the Line?

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By: Guilia Schaub, Staff Writer


The entire world was horrifically shocked on Saturday, October 27, 2018, when Richard Bowers opened fire in the Tree of Life Synagogue during Shabbat services and brutally murdered eleven people. [1]It was even further sickened by the attack when news sources confirmed Bowers’ actions were fueled by aggressive anti-Semitic prejudice, as he shouted “All Jews must die,” when he entered the synagogue. [2]

In the current climate of gun violence in schools, concerts, places of worship, research has shown that an attacker often demonstrates some sort of inclination towards violence or general hatred for one entity or specific group of people prior to the attack. [3]

The police sheriff in Parkland, FL, and the FBI received specific warnings of Nikolas Cruz’s intentions to attack Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School two years before he opened fire and killed seventeen students and teachers. [4]

Omar Mateen, who killed forty-nine people at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FA in June 2016, was the subject of a ten-month FBI investigation before his attack driven by homophobia.[5]

It should then come as no surprise that Bowers frequently voiced his hatred for Jews on an alternative social media site called Gab. He posted this message hours before his attack on Tree of Life: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in.” [6]

Gab was created in the wake of the 2016 Presidential Election, after mainstream social media sites, specifically Twitter, enforced stricter rules on what their users were permitted to post. Many of the avid Gab users had their Twitter accounts suspended for openly abusive and threatening hate speech against minorities. [7] A self-described “social network for creators who believe in free speech, individual liberty, and the free flow of information online,” Gab quickly became a favorite for the alt-right movement to express their ideology with like-minded individuals. [8]

Gab’s service providers quickly suspended and then dropped the site mere days after the Tree of Life shooting, following further investigation that their users frequently promoted and encouraged violence against minorities. [9] Gab is back up and running as of November 5 on a new host provider, Rob Monster, founder and CEO of Epik, said in a statement that he does not make the decision to host Gab lightly, but believes that “de-platforming is digital censorship.” [10]

All speech – even hate speech – is protected under the First Amendment, and restriction of any person’s voice is unconstitutional, until their speech becomes a threat or qualifies as harassment of some sort. [11] Unlike traditional media, such as print, television, or radio, social media outlets enjoy special protection from defamation claims under Section 230 of the Federal Communication Decency Act; it treats social media sites like a third party distributor of information, to allow users a platform to speak freely. [12]

However, in a climate in which an online presence of prejudice thrives and hateful rhetoric is encouraged amongst that community, should social media sites be held accountable above the typical protocol for the sake of public safety?

Twitter began targeting abuse and harassment on its site in November 2016 and now suspends and removes account that violate its policies. [13] Facebook, amongst the aftermath of its involvement in the sharing of ‘fake news’ prior to the 2016 election, published an extensive outline of their rules regarding hate speech earlier this year, something they’ve never made public before. [14] Now, Gab is facing criticism and demands that they take similar measures.

Gab founder and CEO Andrew Torba said in a statement shortly after the attack that Gab is “saddened and disgusted” by Bower’s actions and assured the press that the website was cooperating with officials investigating Bower’s account. [15] Although they are much looser than guidelines on mainstream social media, Gab adheres to its own set of  rules when monitoring its users’ posts. Torba recently boasted about his successful removal of 100,000 bots connected to the ‘weev,’ an alt-right computer hacker that promoted genocide against non-whites. [16] However, Torba questioned whether Gab’s algorithm would identify Bower’s posts as valid threats.  [17]

“I don’t know. Do you see a direct threat in there? Because I don’t. What would you expect us to do with a post like that? You want us to just censor anybody who says the phrase ‘I’m going in’? Because that’s just absurd,” Torba said an interview with NPR. “And here’s the thing: The answer to bad speech, or hate speech, however you want to define that, is more speech. And it always will be.”[18]

Monster, after speaking with Torba, believes he will now govern the site with more responsibility and mindfulness. “My hope, for all of our sakes, is that treads wisely, using its liberty for the betterment of most, and the enlightenment of all.”[19]





[2] Id.


[4] Id.

[5] Id.







[12] Id.






[18] Id.



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