As of May 31, 2019, the U.S. State Department began requesting social media information from visa applicants. The new practice arose from President Trump’s 2017 Memorandum on Implementing Heightened Screening and Vetting of Applications for Visas and other Immigration Benefits. By early December 2019, two organizations (Knight First Amendment Institute and the Brennan Center for Justice) sued to put an end to this policy on the basis that it allegedly violates the First Amendment rights of visa applicants.
The controversy surrounding the social media identification requirement has sparked a great deal of discussion about freedom of speech online and the extent to which the federal government should be able to monitor and even regulate freedom of speech, not just for American citizens in online forums but also for non-citizens seeking U.S. visas.
In other words, visa applicants are not U.S. citizens, but should they still granted the same First Amendment freedoms as if they are? And what are the possible consequences of social media identification requirements for people seeking visas?
To uncover why the State Department’s new practice may be unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds, let’s first examine whether non-citizens are legally granted the same Constitutional rights and what implications this practice may have if it continues.
Visa Applicants and the First Amendment
Although the Constitution was primarily written to protect the rights of American citizens, many of the amendments are intended to cover non-citizens as well, say some Constitutional scholars. They argue that the Bill of Rights was intended to protect citizens and non-citizens alike because the Constitution doesn’t ever say these rights are limited to “citizens;” the Constitution simply says “the people.”
Michael Kagan, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Nevada – Las Vegas, has written extensively about non-citizens’ relationship with the First Amendment, particularly when it involves freedom of speech and freedom of religion. As he wrote in an essay for the Boston College Law Review in 2018:
Speaker identity changes speech in powerful ways, which is why it is dangerous to allow the government to silence certain speakers based on who they are. The Court should recognize that immigrant speech is important enough to be protected by the First Amendment, both for immigrants in the United States and for American citizens who may benefit from hearing what they have to say.
In sum, immigrants and temporary visa holders should maintain the same First Amendment protections as U.S. citizens because denying them said rights would be discriminating against these groups on the basis of identity (non-citizen) and silencing these groups could be enormously detrimental for American society as a whole.
Freedom of Speech Online
The broader question here involves freedom of speech online: why do social media accounts matter in this case? The original purpose of President Trump’s new State Department practice was likely intended as a means for protecting our national security. After all, terrorists commonly use social media as tools for recruitment and propaganda dissemination, which is why asking visa applicants to identify their social media profiles seemingly makes sense at first.
However, this policy can produce a sort of chilling effect on free speech, in which visa applicants no longer share their ideas, opinions and attitudes online in fear of getting denied a visa to the U.S.
For instance, the lawsuit filed by the Knight First Amendment Institute and the Brennan Center for Justice was sparked by the Doc Society and the International Documentary Association’s concerns about filmmakers from around the world being able to express themselves freely, even if their ideas are unpopular. Without access to a U.S. visa, some filmmakers may not be able to continue their investigative reporting and critical documentary work because many filmmakers are reliant on U.S. events to obtain support and resources for their projects.
Beyond filmmakers, it’s simply untenable to require all visa applicants to reveal each and every one of their social media profiles. In some cases, an individual may use a pseudonym to avoid harassment or other serious threats; in other cases, the visa applicant may have expressed an opinion deemed unpopular and/or unsupportive of the current (or future) presidential administration, which could trigger a denial of their visa application.
We don’t know how far-reaching this law may be, which is why we must support the First Amendment for everyone protected under the Constitution, particularly in online environments that are increasingly subject to governmental regulation, such as social media.
The year 2019 brought us many surprises and blessings. FAV earned 501c3 status and quickly gained the Bronze seal of transparency with Guidestar. We have a plan to get Silver and Gold prior to this year’s Symposium in September. We doubled the size of our board of directors bringing on Lawrence Rosenberg, a senior partner with Jones Day who has litigated First Amendment issues in front of the Supreme Court, Chelsea Langston Bombino, Director of the Sacred Sector, a lawyer and new Mom, and Stan Ellis, who brings two decades of financial management experience in the nonprofit sector. FAV is extremely blessed to have these talented individuals added to our founding team and look forward to the amazing work we will do together in the future.
As last year brought great change, 2020 promises much. We start by bidding farewell to Naomi Yakawich, who has been our stalwart communications professional keeping you informed about the many things going on with FAV. Congratulations to Naomi for a recent promotion and marriage! We look forward to seeing her continue great things in her new capacity. We will also celebrate our Fifth Annual National Symposium in 2020, bringing the program back to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. We are excited to make speaker announcements and also let you know about the Edward D. Lowry Memorial Award for Citizenship that will be presented for the first time at the Symposium. Ed lived a life of service as an active citizen in his community, exemplifying the mantra that “Citizenship is not a spectator sport.” We look forward to honoring his life and helping inspire others to live up to the standards that Ed set for civic engagement.
Lastly, we continue our long range strategic planning process, FAV 2025. We have almost concluded the first phase and will keep you updated as the trajectory comes together. Look for more updates in the future including during our upcoming “Delegate’s Call” on January 30th. All FAV Delegates, Board, Advisors and Paid Members are invited as a benefit of their membership and contributions to raising the level of civic dialogue and helping inspire citizens to engage on issues of importance in their communities. We are extremely grateful to the support of all members who care about their communities and want to engage in constructive ways to bridge divides and continue progress through effective understanding and employment of First Amendment freedoms. Whatever your community issues, an effective grasp of the First Amendment will help you make progress.
With Gratitude, Steve & the FAV Team
Organizational Partner Spotlight
FAV is grateful to the Museum of the Bible for providing a VIP tour for FAV Friends & Family in December at no costs. Thanks to the work of the late Ed Lowry, FAV Strategic Advisor and Delegate, The Museum of the Bible hosted a dozen FAV members and family for a wonderful tour. Would you like to get a chance to see the museum? Check out the upcoming events section below for great programming coming up.
January 30 – delegate and member videoteleconference, FAV 2025, RSVP to Heather, time 8pm EST/ 5pm PST [by invitation for paid FAV members and delegates]
February 8 – Balm of Gilead, Museum of the Bible, D.C. register here
February 29 – Difficult Conversations Workshop, San Clemente, CA register here
May 12 – Dr. Cornell West, Museum of the Bible, D.C. Save the date! More info on museum website.
September 25-26 – fifth annual National Symposium, Philadelphia, National Constitution Center
Worried about ‘fake news’? You should be. Several new studies, including one by the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin, show that for the average person, it’s extremely difficult to recognize incorrect, misleading and outright false stories on the Internet. Even more troubling, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that stories found to be false by six major fact-checking services often spread 10 times faster online than legitimate news stories.
Studies also show that fake news stories with clickbait headlines in many cases are getting more engagement and shares on social media than legitimate news stories. This poses a serious threat to the freedom of the press clause in the First Amendment. That’s because fake news stories are designed to distort public perceptions about real-life events, which has led to problematic consequences such as increased public distrust of media organizations, lower subscription rates for credible news outlets, higher rates of censorship, harassment and even violence against journalists and alarming incidents of people acting upon fake news stories. Remember the “Pizzagate” scandal? In 2016, Russian operatives, Twitter bots and others manufactured the ‘news’ that Hillary Clinton ran a pizza-restaurant child-sex ring. The falsehood went viral, shaping public perception of Clinton. A North Carolina man, acting on the baseless report, went on to fire an AR-15 rifle inside the pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C. that was mentioned in the baseless article.
While misleading and false news continues to appear on the Internet, news by legitimate sources continues to be attacked as ‘fake’ news. By dismissing unfavorable news stories as “fake,” individuals, many of whom have large followings on social media and in real life, are contributing to shape negative public sentiment towards journalists and media organizations.
Discrediting legitimate news stories and/or organizations by labeling them as “fake”, combined with the proliferation and increased sophistication of truly ‘fake’ news is making it increasingly difficult for members of society to discern between fact, “alternative facts,” and fiction. This only furthers public mistrust in otherwise highly credible news outlets and allows an individual’s persuasiveness to outweigh factual reporting published by diligent journalists.
To help combat the growing issue of fake news in our society, be sure to read through FactCheck.org’s guidelines for detecting fake news stories before sharing a questionable news story on social media or dismissing something you disagree with as “fake news.”
Consumer activism, which refers to citizens influencing how goods and services are produced, marketed and delivered to consumers, has been around for years. However, the instantaneous nature of digital communications has expedited the ability for consumers to rally support for their causes and persuade companies to change how they do business.
In other words, consumer activism seeks to change how a good or service is created (especially in regards to ethical and environmental issues) through various means of protest, such as boycotting certain businesses/industries, urging others to stop using a product or service, and spending more money on products/services that are sustainably produced in terms of non-wasteful materials and ethical labor standards.
Just as Citizens United v. FEC found that corporations can assert rights to freedom of speech through monetary means, citizens can also “speak” with their consumption habits and preferences. It’s a fascinating phenomenon that many of us have witnessed yet few have consciously thought about when it comes to its effectiveness and consequences for brands and consumers alike.
To uncover the First Amendment underpinnings involved in consumer activism, let’s explore some present-day examples of it in action:
Modern Examples of Consumer Activism
There are countless examples of consumer activism in the U.S. and abroad, including some of these recent events:
- #DeleteUber (encouraged consumers to delete the ride-sharing app after numerous scandals, such as user data mismanagement and alleged profits from the Trump Administration’s travel ban)
- #DeleteFacebook (encouraging consumers to get rid of their Facebook profiles in wake of controversies like Cambridge Analytica and countless data breaches)
- Blizzard Boycott (gamers fleeing the popular video game company after it censored pro-Hong Kong gamers on its live streams and in its competitions)
- Zara fur ban (the company eliminated all animal fur products from its stores in wake of pro-animal activists’ complaints)
Is Consumer Activism Effective?
Just as early American colonists effectively initiated a revolution with the Boston Tea Party (which involved a boycott of British tea after the government monopolized the tea industry in the thirteen colonies through lowered taxes on British East India Company goods), consumer boycotts are often effective nowadays as well.
As consumers express their demands through their purchasing decisions, companies are forced to adapt to changing preferences in the market. Activists have successfully persuaded numerous companies to adopt more environmentally sustainable manufacturing practices (using more eco-friendly, recyclable materials) and advocated for fairer labor practices and higher wages for workers both in the U.S. and abroad.
Consumer activism isn’t always successful, but it’s nevertheless an important trend that aligns closely with the freedoms of speech and petition outlined in the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Fake news has been around for some time, but it’s been brought to light recently in the context of the 2016 presidential election. But the reality is that — to some extent — misinformation has been around since the beginning.
Social media is perhaps the most egregious venue today, since it has the ability to transmit and amplify information quicker than when we could share information only person to person. This makes it even more important to be vigilant when consuming information online so we can avoid falling prey to false or misleading information and perpetuating it.
Here’s how to do you due diligence:
Check the source.
What is the URL? Some fake news sites will try to spoof credible ones, using a similar URL and logo. For example, ABC News could appears as abc-news.com with a similar logo, to trick people into engaging. Also, look at the website’s “Contact” and “About Us” pages. If there’s no editorial contact or the description of their purpose and mission is vague or missing altogether, that could be a sign that the site lacks legitimacy.
When in doubt, do a quick Google search of the website. Is there a history of bad press about the source? Some sites have been outed as venues for foreign governments to intervene in our elections.
Sometimes bad actors will use outrageous headlines to grab attention and drive traffic.. Before sharing any piece of content, read the piece in its entirety. Does the article have a byline? If so, does the author have a track record of content? Did the writer interview reputable sources and include direct quotes and links to supporting information? Is the writing clean or is it chock full of errors? All of this matters, because legitimate journalists conduct themselves in a legitimate manner, while trolls aren’t concerned with following journalistic standards and practices.
Look at the big picture.
If you’re on the fence about the credibility of a source, do some research. Are other outlets reporting on the same matter? Do you see recurring themes as far as the facts being reported? People or organizations with malicious intentions will create their own narrative and it’s usually not supported by other accounts.
In short, the Era of Fake News requires critical thinking. Everyone could stand to be more cautious about their approach to media consumption. How do you ensure you’re not engaging in fake news? Share your tips on our Facebook Page.
The First Amendment applies to many areas of civilian life, including our educational systems. For example, the courts have recognized that students are guaranteed rights prescribed by the First Amendment.
However, it wasn’t always this way. As our country evolved so did its laws. When adopted in 1791, the First Amendment applied only to Congress and the federal government. So when the public school system was formalized in the 19th century, students could not make First Amendment claims.
This censorship lasted into the 20th century. In fact, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that school officials could take punitive action against two students who had an unflattering poem published in the local newspaper. Why was this permitted? According to the court, “such power is essential to the preservation of order, decency, decorum, and good government in the public schools.” What followed was a dangerous precedent. For example, In 1915, the California Court of Appeals ruled that school officials could suspend a student for challenging the administration.
The 1940s brought some fresh air with the flag-salute case of West Virginia v. Barnette. It was then that the U.S. Supreme Court explicitly extended First Amendment protection to students attending public schools. The Barnette case was rooted in religious freedom. Several students who were Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to salute the flag because their faith discourages them from showing allegiance to any worldly government.
School officials chastised the students and their parents. The students then sued, claiming a violation of their First Amendment rights. This time, the court ruled in the students’ favor, holding that the free speech and free exercise of religion provisions of the First Amendment guarantee the right of students to be excused from this exercise on the account of religious beliefs.
There are more recent cases of violations of free speech in a school setting. Earlier this month, the ACLU sued the Smith County School System in Tennessee because according to the organization, “school officials regularly incorporate prayer into school events and preach to students in violation of the separation of church and state.”
Public schools should be vehicles for education, not religious indoctrination. That’s why we continue to fight for First Amendment rights in and outside the classroom. Will you join us?
As we approach #GivingTuesday and the final month of 2019, I would like to remind you why it is so important we lead the charge to protect the space for civil disagreement and other first amendment freedoms. These are not esoteric ideas that the Founding Fathers developed over two hundred years ago with no contemporary relevance. Every day, we see attacks against religious freedom, freedom of the press, and free expression. I want to take a moment to highlight a current issue trending around the world that has a significant impact on the United States if we sit on the sidelines and do nothing.
Repressive regimes in other countries routinely suppress the free expression of their people. You might want to wash your hands of that problem if you believe that it is up to the people to resolve their own challenges. Many agree with that position. However, what should you do when a foreign power attempts to limit freedom of expression here in the United States? If you are like me, a passionate advocate of the principles embodied within the Constitution, then you might want to challenge foreign government interference in our democratic way of life.
You may recall the recent efforts by the Chinese government to modify the NBA’s statements about the protests in Hong Kong. This is not new for other countries to attempt to limit American free expression by employing corporate interests. In 1980 the government of Saudi Arabia attempted to prevent a British documentary, Death of a Princess, from being aired on PBS. Fortunately, most PBS stations aired the program despite Exxon’s attempts to sway their decision. Exxon had sponsored PBS’ Masterpiece Theater since 1971 and was the largest corporate sponsor at the time and would go on to be the largest corporate sponsor in the history of public television, contributing over $250 million over 32 years. Thus, you could see that the firm might be able to sway PBS’ decision on whether to air a film that could impact business interests. PBS, to their credit, aired the documentary at the time. However, if you haven’t ever seen the film, you might be surprised to find that you also missed the 25th anniversary of its showing in 2005 and can no longer watch it. It has aired twice in the U.S. and only once in Britain, where similar corporate interests attempted to prevent the showing on British television.
Saudi has not limited attempts to stifle free expression to America. They are most aggressive against Saudi citizens routinely bullying them on social media and going so far as to cut Jamal Khashoggi into little pieces in their embassy in Turkey, causing an international outcry. They have also attempted to pressure Qatar to shut down Al Jazeera, a dominant news organization in the Middle East.
Of course, these infringements on basic freedoms are not new. We see examples across the world like currently in Iraq, which is an assault on free assembly and expression. Snipers, allegedly trained by Iran, have consistently been targeting protesters who are simply calling attention to a gross lack of possibilities for jobs and basic services while government leaders enjoy the comforts of luxury all provided by oil wealth. We see less egregious cases in the United States with conservative college students feeling constrained in their ability to voice their opinions or journalists fearing for their own safety from overzealous Trump supporters. While the scale and effectiveness of the domestic attacks may seem minor to some, we cannot allow the erosion of essential freedoms, fundamental human rights, to be walked back. Only U.S. citizens can defend the freedoms. Take a stand today and help FAV advocate and educate on the issues.
With much gratitude,
Steve & the FAV Team
In the News
How 3 Teachers Took on the Civics Gap—NEA Today—this is a great story on teaching civics in the classroom and how innovative teachers can make a difference in student learning.
Thank you to special advisor, Ed Lowry, who submitted this article that describes attributes for civic engagement: Fast Times at Capitalism High — What Young People Need to Thrive – InsideSources
Studies Released: Tools to fight disinformation
From RAND—People have access to more information than ever before. But it can still be hard to distinguish accurate information from low-quality or false content. That’s why RAND created a database of tools aimed at fighting the spread of disinformation online. These include websites run by human fact-checkers, apps that use artificial intelligence to detect bots, and games that teach players how to spot disinformation. The database is part of our Countering Truth Decay initiative, which aims to restore the role of facts and analysis in American public life.Explore the database »
We have made tremendous strides this year in creating forums to allow for civil discourse and understanding around first amendment freedoms. Help us continue to make a difference in our diverse communities across the nation.
$1,000 offers … covers two coffee talks, two VIP tickets, recognition at reception
$500 offers … sustaining member covers the cost of one local coffee talk, free VIP ticket
$250 offers … allows purchase of campus advocacy kit – list materials
$100 offers … support local delegate kit – business cards, other promotional materials
$50 offers … allows free student or veteran attendance at Symposium
$25 offers … basic membership includes special invites & discounts at Symposium
Can’t donate today? – sign up for our free newsletter to learn more about FAV impact
FAV is proud to announce we achieved the Bronze Seal of Transparency from Guidestar already this year. Please consider contributing to FAV as part of your end of year giving.
Coming up in DC – 5 December, Times Talks – Women of the 116th Congress
This bi-partisan discussion takes place at the Newseum. Tickets cost $25, get them HERE
San Clemente, CA – January 15 in combination with the i5 Freedom Network. “Should Prostitution Be Legal?”
San Clemente, CA – February 29, Difficult Conversations Workshop – Save the Date
There is a long history of voter suppression for various groups in the United States, with the most common examples being African Americans and women. Although these groups have since obtained the right to vote through the 15th and 19th Amendments respectively, there still exist barriers to voting for other groups, such as convicted felons, mentally disabled individuals, elderly folks without the means to obtain new ID cards and/or go to the polls, and even college students.
As the Pacific Standard argued in a December 2018 article, access to voting is one of the most important issues related to freedom of speech in a democratic society, yet we rarely discuss possible strategies for removing barriers to voting access. In regards to college students specifically, what’s preventing them from voting? Let’s unpack this little-known issue further:
Lack of Poll Accessibility
As the New York Times reported in October 2019, more and more states and municipalities are imposing restrictions on college students’ access to polls. For example, the Texas Legislature recently outlawed polling locations that don’t stay open for the entirety of the early voting period (12 days), which effectively banned on-campus polls that could only operate for some of that voting period due to funding and other resource scarcity.
Other restrictions that currently hinder the accessibility to voting rights for college students include poll parking requirements (some states – like Florida – have required polling locations to have a set number of non-permit parking spaces available) and limited/no access to early voting options.
It’s incredibly important for polls to have a presence on college campuses because students with limited access to transportation are already on campus for their classes, which presents a timely opportunity to cast their vote. Although the misconception that young people don’t vote continues to persist – despite youth turnout in 2018 being the highest it’s ever been in 25 years – college students nevertheless deserve access to polls, just like any other American citizen.
Complicated Residency Issues
For out-of-state college students, residency is difficult to establish for both financial aid and voting. Some states prohibit the use of out-of-state driver’s licenses as valid forms of ID for voting, while other states forbid the use of student ID cards as valid forms of ID for voting purposes. This means that out-of-state students may be unable to vote in the place they currently live and they’re physically unable to go home and vote in their hometowns.
Valid Voter ID Requirements
Speaking of voter ID requirements, obtaining a new ID card can be a logistical and financial challenge for many college students, regardless of their state of residency. If they don’t have a valid driver’s license from the state they attend college in, they may have to fork over more money to obtain a new form of identification just to ensure access to the polls.
For some students however, this process is too inconvenient, too costly and too time-consuming, so they end up not voting at all.
In the U.S., we should not prevent citizens from voting simply because they do not have the means to get to the polls and/or the financial means to obtain a valid form of ID. The same is true for college students: if they want to cast a vote, why shouldn’t we be helping them express themselves through the most democratic form of free speech we have in this country?
Do you sometimes wonder if the work you’re doing is having the impact you hope for? In early September the FAV team and I wrestled with pulling together the people and details for the National Symposium in Washington, D.C. Feeling a bit overwhelmed, I read a note via email from a name I didn’t recognize.
Benedict Cosgrove from New York City
Greetings from Brooklyn —
I just wanted to send a quick note, outside of the LinkedIn ecosystem, to express my admiration for what you and your colleagues are working toward with First Amendment Voice — and also to offer my thanks.
For the past few years, frustrated with what I’ve seen happening in Washington DC, I’ve contributed a number of opinion pieces to media outlets in the U.S. and abroad. Writing those pieces was certainly cathartic — but it’s also become clear that I’ve sort of been shouting in a bubble.
The emphasis on dialog and civil debate that FAV and similar orgs espouse hits home. I don’t disavow the arguments I’ve made in those op-eds — not all of them, anyway — but engaging with others, rather than voicing disgust and (yes) anger, does seem a far more rational way to go about embracing the responsibilities of citizenship.
So — thank you for the work you’re doing in this space, and for the straightforward, compelling questions you’ve posed on LinkedIn. They’ve gotten me thinking — rather than simply ranting.
And good luck with the symposium later this month.
The audience listens during the 2019 Symposium as Steve Miska describes the impact Ben’s message had on him
Needless to say, Ben’s note lifted my morale instantly. I knew that FAV programming impacted people when they attended one of our events. What I struggled with was whether we were reaching people through other mediums like LinkedIn. Subsequently, Ben and I have spoken on the phone and intend to explore the impact of FAV messaging in the next episode of FAV’s podcast, Find Your Voice. Look for this new episode in the coming days. If you haven’t listened in before, check out some of our previous episodes here.
Are there people in your life who might benefit from the good news stories we share? Please recommend our free newsletter to friends and family. FAV is growing, but we depend on you to find the next person in need of toning down the rhetoric and seeking understanding within your community. Sign up here.
Steve & the FAV Team
Symposium photo gallery – Check out photos from our recent Symposium in Washington, D.C. Be sure not to miss next year’s event in Philadelphia.
In the News
Civics in the Classroom: This is a story about a high school teacher going above and beyond to teach civics in the classroom based on current events. FAV encourages leaders at all levels: community, classroom, family to engage younger generations in the basics of civic education, especially as it relates to first amendment freedoms.
Supporting Local News: One of the issues attendees at coffee talk programs hear about is the importance of local news organizations in providing transparency over local government. This Knight Foundation initiative is geared to help grow awareness about retaining and improving local news capacity.
Please plug: share our newsletter with friends and family. Encourage them to sign up! FAV wants to grow in our ability to inspire citizens.
In wake of the ongoing protests in Hong Kong and escalating tensions between China and other powerful countries like the United States, you might have heard about controversies involving American corporations like Blizzard Entertainment, Apple, Disney, several U.S.-based airlines and others that are giving in to censorship pressure from China.
For context, the Chinese Communist Party, which has been ruling China for 70 years now, has severe restrictions on access to information and freedom of speech for its citizens. In our increasingly globalized society, plenty of Western media, products and celebrities are surging in popularity among the Chinese. The spread of Western media — particularly films and TV shows — has been particularly concerning for the CCP, since it would like to propagate rather different values and worldly perspectives than what is expressed through Western media.
These values and perspectives include democracy, freedom of speech/assembly, and even the fundamental bodily autonomy of individuals. The United Nations is being asked to investigate Chine for allegedly being involved in the murder of ethnic minorities for the purpose of harvesting their organs for transplants.
If China is vehemently against American ideals of freedom and democracy, then why are American companies supporting China by silencing dissenters and/or taking actions aimed to appease the CCP? Let’s investigate what’s going on:
The Film and Television Industry
American companies have a relatively long history of catering to their biggest market’s preferences and demands, but appeasing China is a relatively newer phenomenon that has gained traction since the 1990s and early 2000s. This is particularly important for the film and television industry, which has faced substantial profit reductions in recent years due to Internet-enabled pirating, steep competition from video streaming platforms, and declining consumer cinema attendance rates.
To expand their market share and boost revenue, film and television companies have begun altering certain content to ensure their movies and shows will be allowed to play in mainland China. In other words, as a 2018 article in Global Media and China put it: “to improve Hollywood movies’ success in China and to secure a profitable market share of China’s box office, Hollywood studios need to have a good relationship with China.”
Censorship practices implemented to appease China include:
- Casting a white actor to portray an Asian villain (The Mandarin) in Ironman 3
- Casting popular Chinese actors and actresses in blockbuster films like X-Men: Days of Future Past and The Meg
- Removing any content that could be considered pornographic, such as Rose’s nude scene in Titanic
- Casting a white actress (Tilda Swinton) to play a traditionally Tibetan character in Doctor Strange (in addition to depicting Stephan Strange’s spiritual awakening as occurring in Nepal, instead of the original comics’ location, Tibet)
The list of movies courting Chinese viewers by including or removing certain talent, settings and storylines could go on and on — but what about other American companies beyond the film and television industry?
Recent Censorship Controversies
As China analyst Matt Schrader said in an Associated Press article published on Oct. 10, “That’s the price you pay if you want to be in the market. You have to abide by demands to censor information: anything that paints the party or its history, or its top leaders, in an unflattering light, or disagrees with their preferred portrayal of China as a country.”
This scenario has played out for numerous American companies and organizations: Apple (removing VPN apps and police map apps in places like Hong Kong), the NBA (denouncing a pro-Hong Kong tweet from the general manager of the Houston Rockets), and Blizzard Entertainment (suspending a pro Hearthstone player and withholding his prize money after making a pro-Hong Kong statement in a live broadcast).
Why Should American Citizens Care?
These are just some of the many examples of American companies defending China and/or silencing people advocating places like Hong Kong and Tibet (not to mention the hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of Uighur Muslims imprisoned in “reeducation camps” in China).
This should be tremendously alarming for anyone who cares about free speech and democracy, American or not. Is appeasing China’s Communist Party through speech suppression and all-out silencing worth the erosion of democratic ideals around the world? Of course not — which is why we must stay vigilant, continue to bravely advocate for everyone’s rights to freedom of speech and critically evaluate the companies we purchase products and services from.
Boycotting these companies — as former customers around the world have begun to — may or may not make a difference when it comes to standing up to China or caving in to their censorship demands. But it’s crucial to remain informed about what is going on beyond our borders, especially when it involves free speech issues that are subtly starting to infiltrate our lives as well.