Activism, Free Speech, Top Stories

Mark Zuckerberg and the Changing Civil Rights Movement

On October 17, 2019, defending Facebook’s generally hands-off policy with respect to regulating the content of political advertisements, CEO Mark Zuckerberg took to the podium at Georgetown University and delivered an eloquent defense of free expression. In his address, he linked speech to the historic pursuit of justice for the powerless, and made reference to his experience as a student immediately following the invasion of Iraq. This fed his later conviction that open forums for discourse are essential to the advocacy of political causes:

Back then, I was building an early version of Facebook for my community, and I got to see my beliefs play out at smaller scale. When students got to express who they were and what mattered to them, they organized more social events, started more businesses, and even challenged some established ways of doing things on campus. It taught me that while the world’s attention focuses on major events and institutions, the bigger story is that most progress in our lives comes from regular people having more of a voice.

This is a humble and emphatically American sentiment, coming though it does from one of the world’s foremost tech billionaires. The idea that regular people, free to speak truth to power and cultivate their own beliefs, become a force for social progress is arguably the cornerstone of the American experiment. Zuckerberg went on to offer a brief overview of American civil rights history, noting that Frederick Douglass referred to free expression as “the great moral renovator of society,” and quoting one civil rights leader as saying that “nearly all the cases involving the civil rights movement were decided on First Amendment grounds.” Because civil rights protests were themselves examples of protected speech, the movement was permitted to flourish and grow.

But Zuckerberg’s argument did not impress NAACP president Sherrilyn Ifill, who wrote, “The civil rights movement was not fought to vindicate free speech rights under the First Amendment. It was a fight to fulfill the promise of full citizenship and human dignity guaranteed to black people by the Fourteenth Amendment.” Other critics, including comedic actor Sacha Baron Cohen, have assailed Zuckerberg for a laissez faire policy towards political content that they contend makes the platform an unchecked megaphone for particularly fascist disinformation (“If Facebook were around in the 1930s,” Baron Cohen claimed, “it would have allowed Hitler to post 30 second ads on his ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem.’”)

But Ifill’s criticism of Zuckerberg’s historical position on the relevance of free speech to the cause of social justice constitutes an elemental disparaging of open discourse itself as a means (perhaps the means) by which oppressed people may leverage the truth to pursue justice. Her claim that the civil rights movement was (at least explicitly) more concerned with defending the Fourteenth Amendment than it was the First Amendment is not wrong. Yet the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s was deeply rooted in the foundational liberal values that undergird American democracy. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and thousands of others surely fought to push America to live up to the Fourteenth Amendment. But they did so not only by means of the First Amendment, but also by their fidelity to freedom of speech as an ideal.

It is an ideal with deep roots in the history of the movement. Foot-soldiers in the South were trained in civic literacy at “Citizenship Schools,” modeled on workshops pioneered by Septima Clark designed to educate African-American adults to pass the literacy tests that were preventing them from voting in the Jim Crow South. The workshops emerged as incubators of democratic values that imbued their participants with an active sense of patriotism and commitment to the realization of America’s founding principles.

That support of free speech in principle has waned in the modern civil rights movement may seem surprising at a glance. But the reason is understandable. King, and other dissidents in American history besides, strove to introduce new voices into a conversation dominated by oppressive points of view. In this struggle, freedom of speech was an equalizing force. Therefore Sherillyn Ifill, Bernice King (daughter of Dr. King and a critic of Zuckerberg’s) and others, are right to note that the same First Amendment that allowed King and others to speak truth to power also allowed their enemies to spread misinformation. But that was a circumstance that the leaders of the movement at that time would have taken for granted. Part of King’s civic and religious conviction was that, over time, truth always has the advantage in a fair contest of ideas. Hence their goal was to make the contest of ideas fair.

For many in today’s social justice movement that is no longer the goal. The activists of our time enjoy influence over powerful institutions in American life—the academy, the business world and the means of communication, including social media companies—of a kind that King could have only dreamed. So, from the vantage point of today’s activists, a principled commitment to free speech is risky—it allows subversive and hateful speech a place in public discourse. The thinking seems to be that if only we could succeed in pushing the administrators of social media platforms to shun and suppress the purveyors of such speech, we could eliminate their dangerous views from the public square.

This was hardly something that could have been achieved by similar activists in the 1960s. Thus the culture of the time did not select for leaders who thought that way. But with real institutional influence, it is at least conceivable today that civil rights activists could push campus culture, politicians, and media to banish racist and regressive points of view in a way that—it is tempting to believe—would be less dangerous than the consequences of letting such viewpoints be voiced. Freedom of speech was an equalizing force in favor of social justice a generation ago. But this same liberty could serve as an equalizing force in favor of white supremacy today. On this view, it is now sensible for us to exchange some of our commitment to freedom of speech in principle for the power to banish hateful views from public view in practice.

This represents a break with the culture of social justice activism that guided the movement in the past. The truth is therefore that Mark Zuckerberg’s reading of civil rights history with respect to its relationship to free speech is closer to the mark than that of many who have inherited the mantle of the movement. The ideal of freedom of speech is woven deeply into the history of the civil rights movement. We risk breaking faith with the spirit of that movement by compromising that ideal. On the night before he died, Dr. King made the connection plain.

If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.

That ideal is a touchstone we should not abandon. We should not lose sight of the positive power of free speech to advance social progress. In his address at Georgetown, Mark Zuckerberg pointed to this positive power: “You can’t impose tolerance top down,” he said. “It has to come from people opening up, sharing experiences, and developing a shared story for our society that we all feel like we’re a part of. That’s how we make progress.”


John R. Wood, Jr. is a former nominee for Congress. He is Director of Public Outreach at Better Angels and co-hosts the Better Angels Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnRWoodJr


  1. Would one rather have power or wealth? Power obviously. Putin can still jail and ruin the wealthiest oligarch that displeases him.

    Most people are not wealthy or famous. Plumbers, electricians, school teachers, bricklayers, accountants are not holding press conferences or appearing on news and tv shows to express their opinions. So what power does the average person possess? Inalienable Rights. For this reason Freedom of Speech is so important. The common person may not command an audience or even have a right to be heard. But if that commoner has the right to speak, he can be heard and he might even motivate others to act or expose injustice. His uninhibited voice has the power to change nations and alter history. For this reason Freedom of Expression must be defended at all costs because it empowers those who generally do not have power. To protect this most important Freedom means that noxious and vile opinions must be tolerated. If only polite or courteous opinions are permitted then Freedom of Expression ceases to exist. Those insisting upon politically correct speech are engaging in the tyranny of only allowing speech that pleases them. Tyrants are easy to spot because it is always only about them and their whims. Inalienable Rights limit the tyranny of government, even well intentioned government.

  2. Sadly, the new MLK Jr. quote would have to be changed (funny, those who claim tolerance of course can’t tolerate any dissent), “I look to a day when people will be judged by the color of their skin, but not by the content of their character.”

    Intersectionality is destroying unity. Multiculturalism isn’t an embrace of different cultures, but a new right limited to only certain people who have the “right” intersectionality. E Pluribus Unum, free speech, equal protection and free markets are just white supremacy and imperialism.

  3. CEO Mark Zuckerberg took to the podium at Georgetown University and delivered an eloquent defense of free expression. In his address, he linked speech to the historic pursuit of justice for the powerless, and made reference to his experience as a student immediately following the invasion of Iraq.

    I’m not buying that. I’m pretty sure that Zuckerberg never saw his customers as anything but sheep to be shorn.

  4. But Zuckerberg’s argument did not impress NAACP president Sherrilyn Ifill, who wrote, “The civil rights movement was not fought to vindicate free speech rights under the First Amendment. It was a fight to fulfill the promise of full citizenship and human dignity guaranteed to black people by the Fourteenth Amendment.”

    The First Amendment made the Fourteenth Amendment possible. That was Zuckerberg’s point, and it went over Ifill’s head.

    “If Facebook were around in the 1930s,” Baron Cohen claimed, “it would have allowed Hitler to post 30 second ads on his ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem.’”

    Virtually everything Baron Cohen produces is comparable excrement. Including, sometimes, literal excrement. He is the last person who should be promoting content standards.

    If you feel as though free speech is a threat to your politics, then yours are bad politics.

  5. We don’t need to shoot this messenger. In the Woke Olympics, Zuckerberg is Tulsi Gabbard.

  6. Too true. One could probably add variations to this theme, like:
    “I look to the day when people will be judged not by their ability but the amount of people who subscribe to their Instagram account.”
    Or: “I look to the day when an argument will be weighed not by its logic or its reverence to fact, but by its emotional aggrandizement.”

  7. I would like to highlight two pieces of journalism that have emerged from the UK in the course of the past year. The first is footage of two Brexit party officials, brought to light by an undercover Channel 4 News reporter- it contains odious content that is both anti-islamic and racist:

    The second is a BBC Panorama investigation of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party, instructive in that it shows that anti-Zionism, when paired with the Leftist viewpoint of judging someone by their arbitrary groups, inevitably leads to anti-Semitism:

    Both of these articles are example of why the principle that ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant’ is always the best policy- but whilst the first is relatively straightforward, the latter is a bit more complicated. In the first case, it it is simply that bad ideas that are not exposed to the public square don’t just go away as the Left would like to believe, but thrive in the darkness, outside of the glare of mainstream attention. Yes, birth rates are higher for people of Islamic extraction, but they are also much higher for conservatives than for liberals, especially when paired with religious conviction. It’s because religion encourages family orientated living, regardless of the particular faith under discussion. Many liberals, agonise over the choice of bringing two children into a world with growing population levels, but the truth is that for an advanced economy like the UK to maintain zero population growth without decline, every family would need to have four children. Family migration by marriage is also a factor, although the UK now maintains a relatively high income threshold to permit cross-border marriages for the purposes of immigration. The form-filling and bureaucracies in these latter instances can also be exorbitantly high in financial costs, often running into four figures.

    It is precisely because these ideas have not been allowed to be discussed in the public square for so long, that these ideas have begun to flourish again. Worse still, when someone is young, impressionable and easily influenced, they will not have the in-built resistance that comes from dealing with difficult ideas and knowing their counter arguments. Steven Pinker recently made the point, in a Spiked Magazine panel, that a cursory look at comparative violent crime rates might make younger white people more susceptible to arguments about inherent racial violence, unless one knows that when the white Irish American demographic experienced very similar social conditions, they experienced very similar violent crime rates.

    The second instance of racism, though more complex, flourished because of the systemically bad ideas that the Left has propagated. The argument goes something like this. For any one arbitrary group to enjoy greater success in any field (especially socio-economic) that is higher than another, then it must be because of imbalances in power, with the more successful group cast as oppressors, and the less successful as the oppressed. The Left will agree that socio-economic privilege exists, but will argue that it is a by-product of other privileges and thus irrevocably tainted. The only way to escape this taint, is to actively and nobly advocate for those less privileged than yourself. Everybody is equal by nature, by culture, by parental background- the only thing that effects outcomes is the wealth of your parent or parents, with the fact that two parents generally have two incomes, curiously omitted or overlooked.

    The barb of this argument is obviously aimed at white people. But it could easily apply to any other group that enjoys higher socio-economic status. So some Asian groups, obviously. Jewish people, definitely. It could even theoretically extend to some highly successful African American groups of Nigerians, West Indians or other Carribean extraction. Now many people criticise Israel’s policy towards the Palestinian peoples, perhaps rightly so, in some respects. But the inevitable consequence of seeing white people as oppressors, is that others will inevitably be subjected to the same pathological ideology. The more informed elements within a Left-wing political movement will try to prevent the circulation of memes about Jewish conspiracies, Zionist banking cabals and what ultimately amounts to racist slurs. But the racism is inevitable- because of the fertile ground they have created in the minds of the impressionable.

    It’s notable that these two news stories represent the pinnacle of journalism, both in the actions of a Free Press and the exercise of Free Speech, and the type of ground-breaking investigative journalism that is so often lacking, to inform our democracies. To curtail this incredibly effective immune system to bad ideas, would be to remove our ability to inoculate ourselves through exposure, to evil ideologies and hateful worldviews. But there is an even more troubling thought that I would like to posit. What happens when you expose a teenage sociopath or psychopath to the ideas of white privilege and intersectional feminism, if they are white?

    Because we know from studies that both of these concepts do little to engender empathy towards marginalised group, whilst significantly reducing empathy towards poorer white people. This article details the findings:

    That’s for normal people. But what about the 1% of the population who profile as psychopathic, or the roughly 5% who fall somewhere in the sociopathic range? Does it necessarily polarise them against marginalised groups, or encourage them to view these groups in opposition to themselves? Nobody knows. We know that in the ‘colour-blind’ period of interracial relations, active white supremacy had dwindled to an all-time low, largely sustained by regressive prison populations- but although still vanishingly small by comparison to most estimates from the Left, it is still on the rise, trolling and hoaxes aside. What if the vector for this alarming growth, resides in the exposure of juvenile dark triad personalities to this ‘theory of opposition’ championed by the Left, who then go on to expose more innocent and vulnerable types to an embodiment of their toxic pathology. We know these individuals can be particularly dangerous when highly intelligent and charismatic… Perhaps the rise of the Identitarian Right has it’s roots in Leftist Identitarianism, far more directly than anyone previously thought…

  8. Zuckerberg’s defense of free speech is laudable, but misguided. What Facebook provides is not the “free speech” that underpinned the republic before social media.

    The main difference is responsibility. In the past, if you published something defamatory you could held responsible and be sued for liable. If you expounded anti-Semitic drivel on the street corner, a Jew (or other) might hold you responsible by punching you. Try that on social media. Facebook claims it is not a publisher, you can’t sue them no matter what garbage anyone posts. And that anyone could easily be a troll factory on the other side of the world who are not easy to sue, much less punch.

    Furthermore, when you exercised free speech in the past, it was largely a public exercise. You had limited ability to select your audience. Now you can micro-target your message a thousand times, telling everyone what they want to hear without disclosing what you are telling others. That is no longer free speech, that is manipulation.

    Facebook can fix these issues if Zuckerberg chose to do so. The most obvious is to not allow micro-targeting of political content. And please don’t tell me that it is too hard to identify political content–the Chinese social media companies are able to censor it quite well.

    That applies to content as well. As a minimum, they could do a much better job of cutting off the troll farms, and de-prioritizing “engagement” (code word for pushing users towards more and more radical content to keep them clicking)

    Yes, that will cost some money. But Facebook has plenty of that. What they lack is the will.

  9. Ben Thompson on his site, Stratechery, wrote an excellent article that supports Zuckerberg’s position.

  10. How funny, that he would allude to Hamilton’s era, when an intellectual could seriously argue that the First Amendment was redundant because it was understood that the state had no powers not granted by the Constitution.

    We are very far from that mindset today.

  11. Thoose who worriy about the effects of free speech always try to tell us that some form of communication is not really just speech but something else, such as violence or manipulation. They are usually wrong, as I think you are here. The exceptions to the free speech rule, defamation, incitement, fraudulent misrepresentation (including the famous example of shouting fire when there is none so as to cause panic) all have in common the fact that they comprise deeds that are regarded as heinous as well as words. Although the line can be blurred, I don’t think it can be said that micro-targetting of a message to a selected audience is heinous, even if you are doing it to sell fish.

  12. I find it somewhat surprising that those advocating words as violence or something from which persons need protection do not attempt to breathe life back into the old “fighting words” doctrine exception to free speech.

  13. Good points. I would go further. Indeed, I feel TheSnark is being rather manipulative himself or herself.
    First, the argument that in the days of yore comments weren’t as public as they are now is not true. The example given is how a Jew could potentially punch someone for spouting anti-Semitic drivel is silly. You couldn’t punch Hitler through the radio or a newspaper.
    Second, asking Facebook to emulate China’s policy of shutting down “undesirable” political comments is not an example for any free society to emulate.
    Third, what is hate speech? If I say I loathe a certain movie is that hate speech? According to Rotten Tomatoes, yes. You are not allowed to dislike Captain Marvel, nor like Dave Chappelle’s Sticks and Stones. That is how broad and dangerous the definition of hate speech has become. If you support Trump, you’re a Nazi. So the implication is that now, in the interests of democracy, much of America should be stripped of their vote, or not profess their political conscience, according to social media hawks.
    Fourth, the only sensible hate speech laws to have are those which cause material harm (tangible threat to body, property and reputation); this cannot sensibly include personal offence, since offence is unavoidable. Also, the law’s guideline is a reasonable person, not the world’s most perpetually offended person. Unfortunately, in today’s times, social media ninnies get offended simply by Halloween costumes. Their hate is not just micro-targeted but macro-targeted.
    Finally, those who bray about social justice and the need to tolerate, are the most intolerant. Not only do they never ever dispute their own freedom to speech, but accord themselves freedom of action, freedom to cause material harm. They go after people’s jobs for comments made several years in the past, for jokes, for haircuts, for clothes they wore. They never forgive, unless it’s Sarah Jeong and the racism is toward the “right people”.
    The reason we need free speech is because it allows people the right to be individuals. If it is wrong to compel a homosexual to be heterosexual, how is it not wrong to compel someone to hold an opinion that goes against every fibre of their being? Hitler did not rise to power because of free speech, but because no one was allowed to express a contrary view.

  14. PeterfromOZ and Kapeth: those are reasonable objections to my earlier post. My replies:

    Micro-targeting means ever-smaller groups get often vastly different messages. Too frequently they are blatantly untrue, but are targeted at groups most susceptible to them. Since very few outside those groups see them, and there are so many varied ones, the likelihood of serious rebuttal is slim. You can’t fact-check hundreds, it not thousands, of micro-targeted ads, much less have a chance to rebut them effectively. You can do that ads/poltical messaging the targets large parts of the population.

    I am not concerned about micro-targeting commercial advertising (though I often find it irritating). In the end, the worst that can happen is that you get a bad product. There are warranty and truth-in-advertising laws covering commercial transactions. There is nothing like that in the political sphere.

    Nor should there be. What the Chinese do to their social media is not to be copied. However, if they can identify political topics so easily (for their purpose of censoring them), Facebook should be able to ID political ad, too, for purposes of limiting their micro-targeting. And I find hate-speech laws to be very problematic…as you point out, who gets to define what is “hate”?

    Also Weimar Germany is not a good example of failing free speech. At that point Germany had no tradition of free political speech or democracy. Spouting anti-Semitic lies was a relatively safe thing to do in 1932 on Alexanderplatz in Berlin. Try it today in Central Park in NYC. But it is perfectly safe to do so today on social media.

    I am not advocating censorship. I am advocating that the social media platforms be more responsible for what is posted on them and how it is used.

  15. What I’ld like to know is how so many people are able to, at one and the same time, paint Zuck as the Devil incarnate - but then want to give him the job of being Censor-in-Chief !!!??!! I don’t think he’s evil, nor is he an angel. But in any case I don’t want him or anyone else telling me what I can and cannot read.The only person I trust with that job is me.

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