The Washington Post discussed Facebook’s decision to crack down on anti-quarantine rallies, which has prompted “blowback from conservatives and civil liberties advocates.” (The Washington Post)
Critics argue that Facebook is violating users’ freedom of speech, under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The critics have not included the last part of the First Amendment in their argument, as cited in The Washington Post—more specifically, “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Protestors in various states—such as California, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania and others—are demanding that the governors “re-open the economy.” The shutdown of businesses and related actions in the stay-home directives have pushed unemployment to an all-time high in recent history. Attendees’ personal decision to go to the protests and potentially be in close proximity to other people is putting the health of other people and their own at risk. One notable sign has stood out among numerous homemade protestors signs: “My health, My Choice #BackToWork.”
As severe as the job loss is for thousands of people, it is only predicted to get worse with additional business closures and layoffs. This impacts the Deaf* community tremendously, due to disparities in employment outcomes, such as the hiring process. In an email to the Portland Mercury, LilLouie Barrios pointed to the reality many Deaf people are facing during these hard times. “A lot of us Deaf employees have been laid off and lost jobs, which broke us emotionally to know that we would have to fight harder to get new jobs,” Barrios wrote. “It’s not easy for us Deaf people to find jobs.”
The protests clearly violate others’ right to be healthy and stay safe. Some have compared protest attendees with the idea of people willing to engage in consensual sex with others without condoms, without the others sharing about their sexual history, and without all involved parties being tested on STDs first. It is a gamble: anyone you have sex with could be HIV positive, and you don’t know who could have HIV or not. We have laws in place that require people with HIV to be transparent about this diagnosis with their sexual partners. While COVID-19 is very different from HIV, social accountability to other people is still a central theme here…especially when it comes to participating in large-scale protests.
Facebook responded with a statement from their spokesperson: “Events that defy government’s guidance on social distancing aren’t allowed on Facebook,” Whether city, county, or state governments has asked Facebook to block or take down those posts, we will never know. Facebook, however, is well within its right to decide what can or cannot be posted on their website. As Facebook is a company, Facebook is allowed to make executive decisions without consulting users because it is not a government-run organization.
Leaders Criticize Facebook
Facebook’s move has been met with criticism across the board. Donald Trump’s son accused Facebook of colluding with the government to “quash freedom of speech.” In a talk with The Guardian, David Kaye, a United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression, stated that whether a protest is “lawful or unlawful is a decision for government authorities to make on the ground.” As in, some powerful figures believe it is not Facebook’s place to decide if those events are legal or not.
The problem? With COVID-19, there is not enough testing to determine who is positive and who has been exposed. Some situations have arisen where some people who went to anti-quarantine protests have posted to social media, asking others to go get tested because they found almost immediately after the protests that they tested positive for COVID-19.
Last month in March, U.S. Trent Shores released a statement that the Department of Justice is working to “to stop coronavirus-related fraud and to hold people accountable who are infecting others on purpose” (News on 6). A Pennsylvania man has been charged with federal terrorism charges after the police said he claimed to have COVID-19 and intentionally coughed on an elderly man, who was recovering from pneumonia, while in the grocery store. If Facebook did not block or take down posts and events for anti-quarantine protests, could they face criminal charges for “aiding and abetting” criminal activity? Is Facebook protected from lawsuits from families of individuals who attend the anti-quarantine protests, get infected with COVID-19 from someone else while at the protest, and later die?