Parler is Back Online, is it Still a Free Speech Platform?

Parler is back online, having had its web hosting withdrawn by Amazon Web Services after Parler was falsely accused of being used to organize the Capitol Riot on January 6th. It has since been revealed that Facebook was the primary site where organizing took place, and that calls for violence on the day had also been spread on Twitter. Google and Apple also removed Parler from their app stores for not doing enough to moderate content posted on its service. Parler is now hosted by SkySilk, a cloud services provider which asserted in a press release on Monday from their CEO, Kevin Matossian, that the company “truly believes and supports the freedom of speech”. However, in their Acceptable Use Policy they “specifically reserve the right to refuse to provide the Service to customers or End Users engaged in the dissemination of material that…may include, but is not limited to, racist, pornographic, hateful material or those which create customer service or abuse issues for us”. Hateful speech and racist speech are both protected as free speech in the U.S. by the First Amendment under most circumstances. This was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court case Snyder v. Phelps in which Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, a U.S. Marine, sued Fred Phelps, head of the Westboro Baptist Church, for picketing near to a military funeral, carrying such signs as “Fags Doom Nations”, “Priests Rape Boys”, and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”. The court found that the Church’s picketing was protected by the First Amendment “as those statements were on matters of public concern, were not provably false, and were expressed solely through hyperbolic rhetoric”. Therefore, SkySilk’s policy comes into conflict with the legal concept of free speech in America.

Naturally, having been de-platformed for failing to adequately moderate content on their service, it was likely that Parler would take greater steps to enforce moderation regardless of their hosting service’s policies. Milo Yiannopoulos, the right-wing firebrand and self-described “pop star of hate”, decided to test the limits of Parler’s new content moderation. He posted multiple inflammatory parleys, including “death penalty for illegal immigrants when? I don’t get why we don’t shoot on sight. I’d give citizens $500 per illegal crossing stopped with an AK47” and “I mean this with all the Christian charity and compassion in the world–homosexuals should be hanged”. Both of these were unsurprisingly deemed content violations under Parler’s guidelines against “Criminal Solicitation” which prohibits content that is “an explicit or implicit encouragement to use violence, or to commit a lawless action”. However, as Yiannopoulos stated in relation to the Parley regarding illegal immigrants: “This is legitimate policy advocacy… I’m not saying people should be vigilantes, I’m saying the government should change the law”. As abhorrent as such advocacy may be to most people, it would be protected under the same interpretation of the First Amendment as laid down in Snyder v. Phelps. Other Parleys which, while provocative and expletive-laden, do not appear to breach Parler’s guidelines were also cited for content violations. The Parley “You like that don’t you, you filthy fucking whore, you take my hate speech, ON YOUR KNEES AND TAKE IT” was cited for “Criminal Solicitation”, though it’s hard to determine what criminal activity this post is purported to be soliciting or encouraging.

Yiannopoulos eventually had his account suspended for his persistent content violations. Parler doesn’t appear to have the functionality to suspend accounts, instead they changed Yiannopoulos’s account to private so that his posts could not be viewed, and changed his password so that Yiannopoulos couldn’t access his account. His account has recently been reinstated, with most of the objectionable posts removed. Parler has a “Community Jury” of Parler users to whom users can appeal the removal of content which is deemed to breach its guidelines. A Parler employee makes the final decision with regard to these appeals and gives feedback to the jurors. Some of Yiannopoulos’s previously removed content appears to have been reinstated under this appeals process, such as “Who wants to gay bash with me this weekend”. Reviewing posts on Parler, it appears that the focus of the content moderation is on calls to violence. Content that is explicitly or could be interpreted as racist, hateful, or defamatory remains freely shared on the site. Apart from skirting the line in its judgement of what is violence advocacy and what is policy advocacy, Parler appears to remain a bastion of free speech.

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