OPED: Conservatives wrong to target Google and Twitter

Dave Helling
The Kansas City Star
FILE - In this Feb. 8, 2018, file photo, the logo for Twitter is displayed above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. President Donald Trump and other conservatives have been repeating the sinister-sounding term “shadow banning” recently. The phrase, which refers to a “hidden” ban on undesirable users, often comes up in accusations that Twitter and other technology companies are biased against conservatives. But the term doesn’t mean what Trump thinks it does. Twitter, meanwhile, says it does not shadow ban, especially not on the basis of political ideology. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

This week a company called Nexstar Media Group announced plans to buy broadcast TV stations owned by Tribune Media Company. If the deal is approved by everyone who must approve it, the chain will be the biggest broadcast television firm in the nation.

The deal would likely include Tribune-owned WDAF-TV of Kansas City, where I occasionally contribute.

You’ll remember a company called Sinclair Broadcast Group tried to buy the Tribune stations. The proposed purchase touched off a wave of hand-wringing this summer because Sinclair is very conservative and very big.

Some were worried — obsessed, really — that Sinclair wanted to create a right-wing “media empire.”

That deal fell through because it was too big. Interestingly, the size of the Nexstar-Tribune purchase agreement is similar to Sinclair’s.

That suggests another round of complaints about the dangers of media consolidation. As those complaints roll in, let’s be clear: Big media companies aren’t a free speech problem.

Next week, for example, the House Judiciary Committee plans a hearing to talk about Google’s “filtering” practices. That’s a code word for a concern, common among conservatives, that the search engine is “downgrading” conservative speech in its results.

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Incoming U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley has whined about this, too. He’s called for a congressional investigation into Google and Twitter, complaining that conservative voices have been silenced on those platforms.

It’s scary that a senator-to-be, and a former law professor, can be so wrong about free speech. No private firm can be compelled to repeat or amplify someone else’s speech — not your blog, your company’s website, Hawley, The Star, Google or Twitter — without violating the First Amendment.

You have a constitutional right to speak. You don’t have a right to post on someone else’s website.

Recently, Facebook changed the way it chooses articles for its news feed. No newspaper I know of claimed a constitutional right to rank higher on the social media site.

Hawley and others want to get around this problem by changing the federal law that exempts websites from liability for something an outsider posts. Without that protection, operators of a blog or website could be sued for something posted by someone else.

Some want Congress to revoke the exemption for “big” companies that aren’t “politically diverse.” How would that work? Who decides what’s “diverse,” or who is “too big”? The government? No thanks.

And who thinks free speech in America isn’t diverse today? There are a million opinions on the internet, every hour. I have hundreds of viewing options on my TV. There’s more speech today than at any time in American history.

No. If Hawley is worried about the lack of conservatives on Google or Twitter, he can start his own Google or Twitter. That’s precisely what the First Amendment is about.

Big media and tech corporations — Google, Facebook, the new Nexstar-Tribune broadcast chain — may be legitimate concerns as potential business monopolies, just like oil companies and phone companies and drug stores. The government is free to scrutinize business monopolies when it finds them.

That’s a job for the Justice Department.

But the government cannot punish companies because of what they say, or how they speak, or who they choose to speak, based only on their size or popularity. The First Amendment, which is more important than it has ever been, must apply to everyone.