German minister's idea to punish social media could suffocate democracy

Supreme Court rules on Facebook threats
Supreme Court rules on Facebook threats

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Supreme Court rules on Facebook threats 02:32

Story highlights

  • German official called for big fines for tech firms that aren't aggressive on hate speech
  • Paul Callan: Punishing "hate speech" soon leads to squelching all controversial speech

Paul Callan is a CNN legal analyst, a former New York City homicide prosecutor and currently is "of counsel" at the New York law firm of Edelman & Edelman PC, focusing on wrongful conviction and civil rights cases. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Heiko Maas, Germany's Minister of Justice and Consumer Protection, fired a dangerous warning shot in the direction of US free speech advocates with his proposal to fine tech companies up to $53 million for not acting aggressively against "hate speech" on their social media platforms.

Global companies like Twitter and Facebook have emerged as vibrant forums for the debate of controversial issues throughout the United States and the world. At least here in the United States, both the First Amendment and the Communications Decency Act have provided substantial legal protection to internet companies that merely provide a platform for the free speech of others.
Restricting the use of "hate speech" is difficult and dangerous because it is often so difficult to define.
    Supreme Court rules on case about Facebook threats
    Supreme Court rules on case about Facebook threats

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      Supreme Court rules on case about Facebook threats

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    Supreme Court rules on case about Facebook threats 01:44
    Historically, US courts have remained focused on the punishment of criminal conduct rather than the punishment of speech. US law criminalizes speech itself only if the speech can be shown to actually incite criminal activity, as for instance a speaker's call to burn down a building, followed by the action of a riotous crowd in setting the fire.
    On the other hand, Americans' remain free to praise "Islamic Terrorism" -- or even the repulsive philosophies of the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.
    It has been said that we are a society whose Constitution protects even the speech we hate. This tolerance for free speech has been the hallmark of American democracy and must be fiercely protected from the well-intentioned but dangerous proposals of allies like Germany.
    All controversial political speech soon becomes suspect when "hate speech" is punished -- and then democracy suffocates.