Dr. Scott Ferguson, assistant professor in the Department of Humanities & Cultural Studies at the University of South Florida, recently joined other colleges around the nation in trying to ban Chick-fil-A from campus. Ferguson has launched an online petition to kick the chicken fast food service out of the school's Marshall Student Center.
By now most of us know that the unpardonable "offense" committed by Chick-fil-A's president, a Christian, was his unabashed support for traditional marriage and his opposition to efforts to redefine the institution. But equally significant is the fact that Dr. Ferguson is using an Internet-based site, change.org, to create his online petition – in effect, using the web as a handy tool to punish a national restaurant chain because its president exercised his First Amendment rights. The Internet, long heralded as the new bastion of openness and freedom of information, also can be used, it seems, as an effective way to shove disfavored or "politically incorrect" ideas outside the city gates.
Another back-story on this Chick-fil-A controversy is equally intriguing and also leads to the same point. When Gov. Mike Huckabee posted his support for Chick-fil-A on his Facebook page and called on people to participate in an "appreciation day" for the food company, Facebook took down his announcement for a full 12 hours. Only after a public outcry was it restored. Facebook has indicated for some time its support for LGBT issues, and for that reason, its "takedown" of Gov. Huckabee's exercise of free speech, while deeply troubling, was not surprising. But wait! Wasn't Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, the same person who said at last year's G-8 conference that open and free communications over the Internet should be credited with the so-called "Arab Spring" in the Middle East? Mr. Zuckerberg, as well as Google's former CEO Eric Schmidt, and Apple's innovative genius, the late Steve Jobs, have all praised, at various times, the concept of expressive "openness" on Internet platforms.
Yet, ironically, all three – Facebook, Google and Apple – have been tools of censorship against Christian ideas. In addition to Facebook's activities, Google-owned YouTube has banned the pro-traditional marriage message of a youth pastor, and has stripped a number of pro-life investigative reports on the abuses in Planned Parenthood abortion clinics from its site. The web giant also prevented churches and other faith-based organizations from the use of its "Google for Non-Profits" web tool programs, until public pressure from news stories caused it recently to do an about-face. And Apple famously struck from its iTunes App Store the Manhattan Declaration, a statement of Christian conscience created in part by the late Chuck Colson, as well as the app of Exodus International, a leading Christian outreach to individuals, families, and churches impacted by LGBT issues. Clearly, these new media web-based tech companies have contributed in some measure to the suppression of free speech.
On the other hand, to be fair, it must also be recognized that those Internet technology companies – unlike public universities like the University of South Florida – are private entities, not public ones. The First Amendment only applies to entities which can be deemed to be "state actors" – in other words, agencies or arms of the government, not private companies. Further, these companies have, to a great degree, risen to their current innovative heights because of free market principles that grant them leeway in their corporate decisions and policies. So, how can we balance the free speech rights of citizens on the Internet against those legitimate free enterprise rights of new media companies like Facebook, Google and Apple? How can we keep free speech from becoming, once again, a casualty in America's marketplace of ideas?
Two years ago, the National Religious Broadcasters launched the John Milton Project for Religious Free Speech to address just those issues. Shocked at the rising tide of anti-Christian and other censorship of otherwise debatable and lawful ideas on the Internet, NRB launched that project to address the problem, and to suggest solutions. Very soon, the association will be releasing a Free Speech Charter for the Internet as a proposal on how this might be done. But meanwhile, Americans of all religious, political, and social views need to be concerned about the movement afoot to stifle ideas just because they make one segment or another of our culture uncomfortable. Here, a study of the Founding Fathers is instructive. After all, nowhere in their vision of America, or in the Declaration they drafted, or in the Constitution they ratified is there any guarantee that certain people or institutions should be protected against hearing or reading ideas they don't agree with. That kind of guarantee can usually be found in countries with dismal records on matters of freedom, and where the casualties of free expression lead to casualties even deadlier than that.