The mass shootings in Ohio and Texas over the weekend bring up the usual issues about gun control and mental illness. We’d rather set those aside for the moment and talk about free speech and the internet.
The shooter in El Paso posted an anti-immigrant racist manifesto on a website called 8Chan, where he was praised as he was carrying out his mass murder. That site has been host to the rantings of other shooters in the past year, and is obviously a haven for the worst aspects of the internet.
The question is: Is that free speech, protected by the Constitution, or is it not? Should the website itself be banned, or at least held liable in some fashion? Should the government do anything at all, in the name of protecting people from mass murder?
It’s in moments like this that we go back to an old saw: The answer to bad speech is more speech.
Going after a particular website is not going to solve the problem. Hate-filled nutjobs will just go somewhere else.
Certainly, anyone who directly advocates murder or directly threatens other people online can be prosecuted for a crime. Freedom of speech has its limits — you can’t incite a riot, and you can’t threaten to kill somebody. Those things can — and should — send you to jail.
So the pre-shooting behavior of the mass murderer could be punished, as could those who cross the line when egging him on. But the website itself — at least to our thinking — is not responsible for the behavior.
Whether the owner of the website can live with himself is really the question. Perhaps he’ll have an attack of conscience and take it down. But that ought to be his own decision, not anything imposed by the government. The rest of us can help simply by not visiting the site. And whenever we talk to each other and our own kids about these issues, promote empathy and love and understanding, rather than hate and violence.
That’s the simplest of answers to one of the worst problems we face as a country.