Religious Broadcasters to Apple: Let's Discuss Religious Speech Protections

WASHINGTON – The National Religious Broadcasters picked the day of the iPhone 5's unveiling to introduce an Internet free speech charter urging the technology company and other new media websites to embrace the First Amendment as its standard for censorship.

The international association for Christian communicators commended the company during a Wednesday panel discussion for its "spectacular" innovation but chided Apple's refusal to address their censorship of religious material – namely the Manhattan Declaration App.

Apple has resisted Christian leaders' attempts to discuss freedoms for religious expression since the pro-traditional marriage, pro-biblical values online application was taken down from Apple's App Store over two years ago.

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Vice President of Operations for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian World View Steve Bradford said the late declaration creator, Colson, grieved Apple's resistance to discuss the app's removal until his dying day.

"We want a dialogue [but] the dialogue at this point seems to be in one direction – from us to them and we wait," said Craig Parshall, NRB senior vice president and director of NRB's John Milton Project for Religious Freedom.

In a renewed effort to nudge Apple and other new media companies to the table, NRB and the John Milton Project created a Free Speech Charter for the Internet. The document calls on "major web-based media technology companies to voluntarily adopt robust, free speech standards."

The proposed standards – adapted constitutional law case studies – would be: "Permit all manner of content, information and opinions on their web-based platforms regardless of the viewpoint expressed unless that content, information or opinion fits squarely within one of the 'traditional,' 'well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem.'"

Before the charter's release, the NRB and the John Milton Project found that several online companies have adopted policies to censor lawful viewpoints expressing Christian values or controversial ideas on "hot button issues."

Companies such as Facebook, Google and Comcast – dubbed by the NRB as "new media" companies – have pulled down "anti-gay" content, blocked pro-life advertising from appearing in search engine results and tampered with peer-to-peer file sharing of the King James Bible, according to its 2011 "True Liberty in A New Media Age" Report.

Apple also took down Exodus International's app from its online store. Exodus is a ministry that helps those who struggle with same-sex attraction.

Ironically, many of these new media companies value Internet openness and freedom of information.

Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg praised social networking for opening people up to share not only "more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people" in a January 2010 interview with TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington.

The charter challenges, "Why should these same companies, then, execute on their platforms a free speech standard that is substantially lower and is much more anemic than the First Amendment?"

Adopting First Amendment standards would give Christian media outlets more access to the online tools necessary to reach an international audience. However, Colby May, a senior counsel and director of the Washington office of the American Center for Law and Justice, noted that asking new media companies to follow constitutional laws regarding religious free speech will be tough because they are privately owned and regulated corporations.

"You'll find out that the Googles of the world and the big players like Apple are very, very jealous to guard their rights, their full rights under the First Amendment," said May.

Parshall noted that NRB has been advised that the laws in California, where many new media companies such as Facebook are located, protect private companies' right to block certain content. Therefore, legal action against such companies would likely be unsuccessful, he said.

Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University Adam Theirer suggested that Christian broadcasters embrace an open marketplace model and counter censored speech with more speech.

Parshall responded, saying that the NRB supports an open marketplace with standards that sets guidelines for expression. He is optimistic that Apple and other new media companies are listening to their message.

"They all have a presence here (in Washington D.C.). They spend millions of dollars on lobbyists," Parshall told The Christian Post.

He hopes that as word spreads through the media, Apple will eventually come to the table to talk.

Follow Stephanie Samuel on Twitter @stephlivinlive

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