Is Sowell free speech friend or foe?

By Corey Friedman

I can sympathize with Thomas Sowell, the syndicated National Review columnist who was incensed to discover that an essay posted to a blog was erroneously credited to him.

I can’t, however, defend his haughty rampage.

The writer sicced his lawyers on Google, which owns the Blogger application with which the offending blog was created and hosted. He demanded that Google take down the offending post.

An auto-response from Blogger concluded, “We strongly believe in freedom of expression, even if a blog contains unappealing or distasteful content or presents unpopular viewpoints.”

Sowell countered that it wasn’t the content of the post that made it objectionable, but the fact that it fraudulently used his name to disseminate a work that wasn’t his.

The phony column was eventually taken down, but Sowell used the episode as ammunition to call for blog hosts to tighten the reins on their writers. In a frothy and paranoid closing shot, he irresponsibly raises the fear that if the Web sites don’t crack down, Uncle Sam will have to.

“If the people who control Internet web sites do not do anything, is that not an open invitation for government to step in?” Sowell concludes. “And does anybody want politicians to control what can go on the Internet?”

The creation of blogging services has brought global audiences to both professional writers and latter-day diarists. Because each blogger creates and controls his own content, he acts as a self-publisher, solely responsible for his words if they cross the line of free speech into the chasm of fraud.

Sowell would apparently prefer Blogger, WordPress and other such sites to act as publishers, erasing posts when doing so is justifiable. That would create a chilling effect on free speech by way of the slippery slope: If blog developers start deleting posts any time a lawyer zips off a snotty e-mail, protected speech will be stifled because cautious corporate attorneys would rather censor controversial content than defend it.

In this sad scenario, freedom of the press would once again be limited to those who can afford a press — or its modern equivalent, a domain name and Web hosting.

Blog software and free hosting services provide a valuable tool. They are the megaphones, marquees and protest signs of the 21st century.

They simply operate the printing press. Let’s not promote them to publisher.

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