Standing Up

In the spirit of standing up for what’s good and right, naturally I applaud Twitter, Facebook, and other online service providers for shutting down some of the insane yammering that emanates these days from the wacko fringe of the Republican Party.

And yet, I find myself wondering….

Remember when that bakery in Oregon refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple? The courts said no, you have to bake that cake. If you don’t, it’s illegal discrimination.

Naturally, I despise those bigoted bakers. But in a legal sense, how is refusing to bake a cake any different from refusing to publish stuff that people write or say? This is not an easy question.

I’m not a lawyer. There may be a clear answer. I just don’t know what it is.

Freedom of the press, as someone once remarked, is for people who own one. Your local newspaper is not obliged to print your letter to the editor. This is not censorship! They may not have room for your letter. They may feel your letter duplicates other letters that are, perhaps, better written. Or, indeed, they may have an editorial policy that suggests you’re a loon and ought not to be allowed to spread your looniness. They don’t even have to explain their reasons. They just toss your letter in the waste basket, and there’s the end of it.

Online services that publish content written by outside sources are in exactly the same position. Nothing requires them to make the things you write available to the public.

But how is the business of declining to publish an opinion any different from declining to bake a cake?

One difference is that the gay couple will be paying for the cake. Twitter and Facebook are free. Could that be a basis for a legal distinction? If you offered to buy advertising space in your local newspaper in which to disseminate your letter to the editor, maybe the paper would be in the same position as the Oregon bakers. Maybe they would have to take the ad.

Except, no, I don’t think they would. There’s a long tradition in the publishing industry of newspapers and magazines refusing to accept paid advertising if the content of the ad violates their policies.

I’d really like to feel comfortable with the idea that those bakers should be required to bake the gay wedding cake, but right now I’m leaning toward thinking that, as despicable as their position is, they ought not to be required to do so.

It’s a rock-bottom principle in a democratic society that the law isn’t just for protecting nice people — people we agree with. The law has to be applied equally to everybody. People that you and I deplore are entitled to the same legal protections as people that you and I applaud. If it doesn’t work that way, it’s tyranny.

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