Controversy over ‘Yik Yak’ App Shows the Need for More Free Speech, Not Less

By June 11, 2014

In the generation or so since the Internet radically remade human communication, a slew of websites have come and gone that enabled the anonymous posting of commentary—and the unsavory and often vicious gossip that comes with it. Almost seven years ago, the infamous rocked colleges across the nation by exposing the shocking fact that students could be mean about each other on anonymous discussion threads. Now comes the similarly notorious Yik Yak, a social media app that uses GPS to detect students’ locations and consolidate their posts into local social networks, particularly ones based at schools. Hard on the heels of the inevitable stream of trash-talk that Yik Yak has engendered have come heated condemnations of the app and everything it represents.

As FIRE noted in response to the JuicyCampus brouhaha, while much of the speech uttered through these forums is protected by the First Amendment, a small amount of it is not, such as defamation, true threats, and speech that incites imminent illegal action. Anyone defamed by speech expressed through Yik Yak or harmed in some way by speech that falls into one of these categories has the right to sue the perpetrators (if they can be identified, which they usually can with enough effort) in court. Given that judges are far more qualified than college administrators to evaluate claims of defamation and distinguish them from constitutionally protected speech, a legal response is far preferable to any attempts by universities to censor Yik Yak and other anonymous gossip sites like it.

Further, it should be obvious that prohibiting these apps on campus may actually backfire by adding to their notoriety and thus to their popularity (as happened with JuicyCampus). Worse yet, such bans may open the door to more odious forms of censorship, with administrators punishing any criticism of university officials on trumped-up charges of “harassment,” “threats” or “bullying.”

As FIRE President Greg Lukianoff argued in a piece for CNET last year, forcing unpopular opinions underground is asking for trouble. It forces those who wish to express such opinions into ideological echo chambers, where their sympathizers’ nonstop confirmation of their biases risks making them even more extreme. Such censorship can also lull people into a false sense of security, blinding them to the presence of problems in their communities. A group of students at Boston College (BC) recently called attention to this benefit in a letter to the campus newspaper. They noted with dismay that racist comments had been posted on Yik Yak by some BC students, but they laudably refrained from calling for its censorship and acknowledged its potential to foster dialogue: “We are not saying that this app should be shut down or censored. As per the First Amendment, everybody should be allowed to say whatever he or she wants to say. Only when we can acknowledge that such perspectives exist can we move toward dialogue.”

Anonymous commentary can also enable people to speak truth to power more easily than they could if they had to identify themselves every time they spoke out. As media and intellectual property lawyer Robert Rotstein recently pointed out, Thomas Paine wrote his legendary “Common Sense” pamphlet anonymously for fear of being punished for treason by the British. The Federalist Papers, published under the pseudonym “Publius,” helped lay the groundwork for the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Nowadays, anonymous online postings can help bring key societal trends to light for much-needed discussion. Two months ago, an anonymous commenter on the website “Secretrelated that Google had bought out her company and hired everyone on its five-person staff except her, even though she was a founding member of the firm and its only female employee. The story spread like wildfire in Silicon Valley, triggering a spirited debate about sexism in the technology sector. That debate might never have materialized if the poster had not been able to conceal her identity so as not to damage her future employment prospects.

Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the critical role of anonymous speech in allowing ordinary citizens to challenge abuses of power. In Talley v. California, 362 U.S. 60, 64 (1960), the Court wrote:

Anonymous pamphlets, leaflets, brochures and even books have played an important role in the progress of mankind. Persecuted groups and sects from time to time throughout history have been able to criticize oppressive practices and laws either anonymously or not at all.

Finally, it’s critical to remember that purveyors of vitriol and contempt are hardly the only ones who have these online platforms at their fingertips. Students on campus can use Yik Yak and other social media to express their disgust with the mudslinging and to spread positive messages of their own. According to Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, some students at schools plagued by Yik Yak gossip have established “compliment pages” and “compliment threads” on Facebook and Twitter to offset the slime. Some students have gone even further, reportedly using the app to raise money to pay for a fellow student’s cancer treatments. Such developments come as no surprise to me; I recall the furor over JuicyCampus—which exploded midway through my senior year of college—but I prefer to remember students devoting whole threads on the site to praising schoolmates whom they admired. Like any other channel of communication, Yik Yak can be used for good as well as for ill.

The controversy over Yik Yak should remind us of the truths that underpin the right to free speech. Muzzling the expression of reprehensible beliefs does not stamp them out; it only drives those attitudes underground, making their opponents more complacent and their adherents more charged. There can be no overcoming hate without first identifying it, which only becomes harder when those individuals are forced to keep a low profile. The solution to too much obnoxious speech is more virtuous speech—and the same media that enable the former can and should be used to spread the latter.