White House press secretary Josh Earnest was forced to remind the press corps the federal government can’t censor news because of the First Amendment, in a bizarre exchange during a White House press briefing Monday.
“Obviously, there are some important First Amendment issues that come into play when we’re having this discussion,” Earnest said, rebuffing a call for the White House to work toward censoring “fake news” on social media. He brought up the constitutional prohibition on censorship three more times before the conversation ended.
New York Times White House correspondent Gardiner Harris had asked Earnest whether the administration treats threats based on “fake news” — such as the man who recently entered a Washington, D.C., pizza shop with a gun to investigate something he read online — the same as it treats terror threats. The implication was that the White House should get Facebook to censor “fake news” the same way it has pushed Facebook to censor these terrorists.
“I’ve never heard you talk about what the administration is doing, even not just on a law enforcement basis but a policy basis, reaching out to these Silicon Valley companies,” he said to Earnest. “I mean, the President has recently been discussing the problem of fake news on Facebook. Why hasn’t there been a concern — a growing concern on the part of the administration about what seems to be a growing amount of vitriol directed at a variety of people, sometimes violent vitriol, within the United States?”
Earnest replied by noting that while the president is “concerned” about the impact of rhetoric on the country, he does not have the ability to censor free speech or to push Facebook to treat American citizens as it would foreign terrorists who are not constitutionally protected.
“Obviously, there are some important First Amendment issues that come into play when we’re having this discussion,” he said. “Those First Amendment issues aren’t prioritized in the same way when we’re talking about overseas terrorist organizations that don’t enjoy the same kinds of protections that American citizens do.”
Facebook would have to decide for itself how it wants to treat the use of its platform to spread certain ideas, and balance whether it wants to risk alienating a large portion of its users in order to censor information. “They’ve got their own built-in interest in protecting the First Amendment rights of their users while also creating a community and a platform that people actually want to use,” he said.
Unsatisfied with his response, Gardiner pressed: “Do you think the market just will have to police itself on that then?”
His question forced Earnest to once again remind the reporter that the government cannot censor free speech. “Given the First Amendment questions that are raised, the role for the government to play in all of this is going to be necessarily limited by that.”
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