Ben Sasse Asked Mark Zuckerberg Whether He Defines Hate Speech Like College Students Do

"You used language of safety and protection earlier. We see this happening on college campuses all across the country."


Jeff Malet Photography/Newscom

One of the most interesting moments of yesterday's Senate committee hearings on Facebook privacy issues came when Sen. Ben Sasse (R–Neb.) asked Mark Zuckerberg to define hate speech.*

Zuckerberg immediately suggested violent speech as a category of content that would always be impermissible on Facebook. But Sasse cut him off. Everybody agrees about violent speech, he said. What about "psychological" harm?

Here's a transcript of the exchange, with especially noteworthy sentences bolded:

Sasse: I think regulation over time will have a hard challenge. You're a private company so you can make policies that may be less than First Amendment full-spirit embracing, in my view. But I worry about that. I worry about a world where when you go from violent groups to hate speech in a hurry. In one of your responses to one of the opening questions, you may decide or Facebook may decide it needs to police a whole bunch of speech that I think America might be better off not having policed by one company that has a really big and powerful platform. Can you define hate speech?

Zuckerberg: Senator, I think that this is a really hard question. And I think that's one of the reasons that we struggle with it. There are certain definitions that we have around calling for violence.

Sasse: Let's just agree on that. If someone is calling for violence, that shouldn't be there. I'm worried about the psychological categories around speech. You used language of safety and protection earlier. We see this happening on college campuses all across the country. It's dangerous. Forty percent of Americans under age 35 tell pollsters they think the First Amendment is dangerous because you might use your freedom to say something that hurts someone else's feelings. Guess what? There are some really passionately held views about the abortion issue on this panel today. Can you imagine a world where you might decide that pro-lifers are prohibited from speaking about their abortion views on your platform?

Zuckerberg: I certainly would not want that to be the case.

Sasse: But it might really be unsettling to people who have had an abortion to have an open debate about that.

Zuck: It might be, but I don't think that that would fit any of the definitions of what we have. But I do generally agree with the point that you're making, which is that as we are able to technologically shift toward especially having AI proactively look at content, I think that that's going to create massive questions for society about what kinds of obligations we want to require companies to fulfill and I do think that that's a question that we need to struggle with as a country. Because I know other countries are, and they are putting laws in place, and America needs to figure out a set of principles that we want American companies to operate under.

Sasse: I wouldn't want you to leave here today thinking there's a unified view in the Congress that you should be moving toward policing more and more speech. I think violence has no place no your platform, sex traffickers and human traffickers have no place on your platform. But vigorous debates, adults need to engage in vigorous debates.

I'm not sure precisely which poll Sasse was referencing, but 53 percent of students told the Knight Foundation that diversity and inclusion were more important than free speech. YouGov found that 58 percent of students supported banning intolerant and offensive ideas—and half of all students who correctly said that hate speech is currently protected by the First Amendment nevertheless opined that it should not be. Current students were more likely than other groups to say offensive speech should be restricted, according to the Cato Institute, and New Criterion found that 21 percent of people 30 and younger thought the First Amendment was outdated and should be changed. (72 percent said faculty members who make offensive statements should be disciplined.) The data are clearly in line with Sasse's assertion: A significant percentage of young people are suspicious of the First Amendment, define hate speech broadly, and prioritize comfort and safety over free speech.

Sasse was also correct to note that Facebook is a private company, and is therefore not bound to adhere to the First Amendment. Zuckerberg would be within his rights to create a platform where speech is regulated more strictly than it would be on a public university campus. Zuckerberg, to his credit, maintained that he does not wish to banish uncomfortable conversations from Facebook, though he conceded that the company may not always do a good job differentiating uncomfortable speech from so-called hate speech. That job is only going to get more difficult.

Correction: This post initially misidentified Sasse's state.