Supreme Court To Address Growing Threat of Hate Online

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Each Supreme Court term, Interfaith Alliance identifies key cases that could directly impact religious freedom and the integrity of our democratic institutions with their outcomes. After a concerning slate of decisions this Spring, the court will hear major cases involving anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination, tribal sovereignty, and threats to democracy in the coming months. Two additional cases – Gonzales v. Google LLC and Twitter v. Taamneh – will break new ground in ongoing debates around social media regulation and free speech. Here’s what you need to know about their potential impact on religious freedom online. 

Our Responsibility to Address Hate, On and Offline 

The power of social media is revolutionary. As the COVID-19 pandemic drove many religious communities to change when and how they gathered, online spaces opened new opportunities for connection. But with substantial progress in technology come new sets of challenges. As these platforms facilitate understanding and innovation, they also provide bad actors with broader means to cause division and inspire fear. Real world violence, inspired by online hate and harassment, is growing. 

As hateful ideas spread farther and more quickly online, at times translating into physical violence, members of religious and other minority groups are concerned for their safety. If any community can’t live openly and authentically without fear of harm, then the promise of religious freedom in our country remains unfulfilled for all of us.

Platform Accountability for Online Content

This term, the Supreme Court will take on the controversial Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996. ​​This provision has historically been interpreted to shield social media companies from prosecution for hateful content or misinformation on their platforms, placing the legal burden entirely on the user. However, as urgency grows around addressing hate online, Section 230 has received increased scrutiny to prevent platforms from ducking responsibility for the harm they spread. 

In Gonzales v. Google LLC, the Court will consider the role of algorithms in boosting extremist content. The suit is brought by the family of an American student murdered in the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, seeking accountability for Google in promoting terrorism-related videos on YouTube.

Twitter v. Taamneh raises a similar question of platforms culpability in relation to terrorist activity under Section 2333 of the Anti-Terrorism Act in addition to Section 230 of the CDA. This case asks whether Twitter is responsible for the growth of terrorist organizations for not taking more aggressive action to remove their content. Both cases have the potential to transform the law’s ability to regulate social media platforms.  

As we await decisions in both of these cases, Interfaith Alliance is preparing to release a report entitled Big Tech, Hate, and Religious Freedom. Connecting the dots between our first freedom, our increasingly online lives, and the business practices that promote hate, this report calls for urgent measures around key policy areas. Together, through education and action, we can make clear that hate has no home in our communities on- and offline.  

Interfaith Alliance advances an inclusive vision of religious freedom, protecting people of all faiths and none, in service of a pluralistic democracy. Learn more about our work championing religious freedom in the courts.