Many of our most pressing discussions about justice, progress, and civil rights have moved online. Activists advocating for social change no longer need to be in the same physical space to connect with others who share their challenges and aspirations. But the convergence of mobility, connectivity, and technology is not the only reason why. Thanks to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act’s (“Section 230”) immunity for online platforms, websites, and their hosts, speakers can engage in speech about protest, equality, and dissent without fear of collateral censorship from governments, authorities, and others in power who hope to silence them. This Article is the first attempt to demonstrate precisely how Section 230’s distributor-based immunity protects civil rights-related speech.
Though the statute’s immunity extends to any website, platform, or other distributor that hosts user speech, it particularly benefits those voices from underserved, underrepresented, and resource-poor communities. Without this immunity, members of marginalized groups would be far less able to raise awareness on issues related to their rights and survival. African Americans would be less able to attract mainstream attention to the sometimes-deadly realities associated with interactions with the police in their communities. Women claiming sexual assaults would be unable to organize online to counteract the advantages of their powerful and litigious attackers. A pseudonymous blogger would be less able to critique their local school board. In a world without Section 230, the new lights cast on these issues would be far less bright. And speech that most of society finds morally repugnant, such as pornography or terrorist speech, would be suppressed—not just speech that falls into such categories, but also speech about speech in those categories. Attacking speech intermediaries is an attack on the speakers who rely on them. Conversely, protecting these intermediaries protects the speech itself.
Section 230 as Civil Rights Statute,
92 U. Cin. L. Rev.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.uc.edu/uclr/vol92/iss2/1