Mike Baron and Richard Bonk’s Kickstarter campaign to publish their new graphic novel “Private American” looked like a success. In a month, it raised more than $2,500, ten times its modest goal of $250. Then, Kickstarter suddenly suspended the campaign.
Around the same time, cartoonist and animator Nina Paley was crowdfunding her comic book “Agents of H.A.G.” on Indiegogo. After quickly surpassing her $1,000 goal, she reached out to a printer and placed an order. A short time later, Indiegogo canceled the campaign.
In each case, the platform retroactively decided the content of the artist’s work — or anticipated content, as the full works weren’t published yet — violated its terms of service, and returned all of the money to the donors. In Baron and Bonk’s case, the decision came in response to public pressure. In neither case did the artist have a chance to contest the decision.
Incidents like these are hardly surprising anymore. But if we care about free speech as a cultural value, we can’t ignore them. Free speech can’t thrive in practice when calls for censorship are rampant and private businesses are quick to deplatform or deny service to individuals for their lawful expression.
Online platforms frustrate ‘Punisher’ writer’s efforts to take ‘Private American’ public
Mike Baron is a prolific, Eisner Award-winning comic book writer. In the late 1980s, he wrote early issues of Marvel’s first ongoing “Punisher” series. He wrote for “Batman,” “The Flash,” and “Star Wars” comic adaptations, and created several characters of his own.
More recently, Baron took to self-publishing graphic novels he believes mainstream comics publishers won’t touch because of their subject matter. Last year, he wrote “Thin Blue Line,” which tells the story of police officers who guard a mayor during city riots. Video producer and blogger Chris Braly successfully led a crowdfunding campaign for the graphic novel, though not without some resistance. Baron says “Thin Blue Line” was barred from Facebook ads.
But that fundraising effort went smoothly compared to Braly’s campaign to fund publication of “Private American.” The graphic novel, written by Baron and illustrated by comic book artist Richard Bonk, tells the story of an ex-Green Beret who turns to vigilante justice after experiencing tragedy at the hands of drug cartels. The crowdfunding pages give this synopsis:
Private American follows Marcos Zamora, a patriotic, first generation Cuban-American and a former Army Green Beret, as he and his partner Gustavo battle criminals crossing the southern border, including cartels, human traffickers, Iraqi, Afghan, and Lebanese terrorists, and enemies of the state who are taking advantage of the border chaos to bring in desperate migrants, fentanyl, and suitcase bombs, leaving thousands of victims spread across the landscape.
The synopsis describes the protagonist as a mash-up of The Punisher and Captain America.
Braly initially created an Indiegogo campaign last September to fund the project and took to Twitter to promote it. That’s when Braly and the creative team hit their first bump in the road. Twitter banned the “Private American” account “for violating the Twitter Rules.” (That lack of specificity is a Twitter hallmark. It’s a little like a prosecutor charging you with “breaking the law.”) Braly said he followed up for more information, but the company never responded.
Shortly after that, Braly discovered that Indiegogo “shadowbanned” the campaign, hiding it in search results on the platform and on Google, and preventing the campaign’s backers from receiving updates. The only way you can reach the campaign page is with a direct link, which the now-banned “Private American” Twitter account is unable to advertise.
On Dec. 7, The Daily Kos published an article by Starr Mignon with the headline, “Punisher creator Mike Baron releases another Racist AF comic book.” (The headline was later corrected to reflect that Baron wrote for, but did not create, “The Punisher.”) Mignon called “Private American” a “diatribe of racist propaganda” and “stochastic terrorism disguised as a funny book.” She apparently based those opinions on the Kickstarter synopsis, as the graphic novel itself was not yet available. Mignon concluded the article by encouraging readers to contact Kickstarter to object to its hosting the “Private American” fundraiser.
It’s unclear how many readers contacted Kickstarter, but a few commenters on the article said they did, and Chris Braly received this message from Kickstarter the very next day: “After an extended review of your project, we’re sorry to inform you that your project does not fall within our rules.” The message said that “Kickstarter disallows projects or creators that promote discrimination, subjugation, or intolerance towards marginalized groups.” Never mind that the company already reviewed and approved the project before it went live.
Kickstarter’s charter says it “will always support, serve, and champion artists and creators,” but that didn’t appear to figure into its decision. Not only was the campaign permanently suspended, but the company denied Braly the funds he’d already raised.
Crowdfundr quickly followed suit. On Dec. 20, the self-described “creator-friendly” platform suspended Braly’s campaign without warning. When Braly asked for an explanation, Crowdfundr’s support team told him, “It was brought to our attention that this campaign is not aligned with community standards.” They added that the project violated Crowdfundr’s prohibition on campaigns that support “intolerance of any kind relating to race, ethnicity, national origin” and other identity categories, and that campaigns must adhere not only to Crowdfundr’s terms of service but also those of its payment processors Stripe and PayPal.
‘Agents of H.A.G.’ now M.I.A.
While Baron, Bonk, and Braly were going through their ordeal last month, artist and director Nina Paley, who has drawn and written comic strips such as “Nina’s Adventures” and “Fluff,” was creating “Agents of H.A.G.”
“Women are disappearing from all over the Internet!” the comic book’s synopsis reads. “But WHO is disappearing them? Menopausal Woman and Sidekick track down the nefarious BanHammer — and get help along the way from an unexpected ally.”
Paley is a self-described “gender-critical radical feminist,” and Agents of H.A.G. is of a piece with her criticism of the deplatforming of feminists who express skepticism about gender identity.
“IndieGoGo just canceled the campaign, refunded the donors, with no appeal,” Paley tweeted. “All the money, funders, orders, gone.”
A thriving free speech culture depends on more than government restraint
When people speak up about incidents like these, the standard response is: “It’s a private company! They can do what they want!” In many cases this response is a strawman, as nobody claimed otherwise. Rather, people are criticizing prevailing cultural norms around tolerance for diverse or dissenting speech and ideas.
It’s a mistake to assume free speech interests come into play only when the government is the censor. Without a doubt, the government’s sovereign power presents a unique threat to freedom of speech, and that’s why we have the First Amendment. Freed from that restraint, the government could ban you from expressing certain ideas anywhere, at any time, and it could throw you in jail if you disobey.
Corporations and large private institutions don’t command that level of power. And they have their own rights to freedom of association. But there’s no denying many of them have an outsized influence on our lives, affecting individuals’ ability to earn a living, communicate with one another, and access all manner of ordinary products and services. The more that powerful institutions and platforms converge around intolerance of certain views or succumb to pressure campaigns to silence speakers — and the larger the set of verboten beliefs grows — the less people will talk openly on important issues or push artistic boundaries. In other words, we’ll reap fewer of the cultural and democratic benefits made possible by the First Amendment’s strong protection of free speech from government interference.
We should applaud the institutions that resisted calls for censorship, but lament that an increasing number of people seem to prefer erasing ideas over engaging with them, confident they can make powerful institutions bend the knee.
Just trying to self-publish a book, for example, potentially exposes you to multiple censorship choke points that can limit your access to important resources: crowdfunding sites to raise funds for your project, social media platforms to promote it, online payment providers to receive payments or donations, and online marketplaces to sell the book.
Ideally the free market would provide viable alternatives to services that shut you out for your speech or views. Sometimes it does. But in many cases the alternatives are no more tolerant. “Private American” was canceled or restricted on all three crowdfunding platforms Braly used. This sort of institutional convergence raises a red flag. It’s easy to brush off a single instance of private censorship in isolation. But it’s not so easy when you zoom out and recognize the trend and its cumulative effects.
Last year, the Sundance Film Festival screened Meg Smaker’s documentary “Jihad Rehab,” then apologized when critics accused the film of being Islamophobic, prompting other film festivals to rescind invitations. Over the summer, Minneapolis venue First Avenue canceled Dave Chappelle’s comedy show hours before he was set to perform because of blowback from staff and protesters over what they perceived as transphobic jokes. Last fall, Eventbrite pulled author Sara Phillimore’s launch event for her book on “gender criticism.” Meanwhile, PayPal — a company with a sorry record on free speech — froze a UK-based free speech organization’s account for vague reasons having to do with “protecting the ideals of tolerance, diversity and respect for people of all backgrounds.” And Twitter suspended journalists whose speech irked the CEO. That’s not to mention the ever-growing trend of colleges, including private ones, sanctioning academics for their speech. The list goes on.
It’s especially troubling when influential platforms and institutions nominally committed to free speech (like Twitter), creative freedom (like Kickstarter and Indiegogo), or free inquiry (like Nature Human Behaviour) shrink from those commitments.
2022 also saw some unsuccessful cancellation campaigns. We should applaud the institutions that resisted calls for censorship, but lament that an increasing number of people seem to prefer erasing ideas over engaging with them, confident they can make powerful institutions bend the knee.
It’s also true, as my colleague Talia Barnes observed last week, that some of last year’s victims of cancellation were able to find new platforms. But as Talia wrote, “replatforming often requires an existing degree of fame or a surge of media attention.” Meanwhile, “up-and-coming artists witnessing the consequences — financial, psychological, reputational — that befall people who tackle difficult topics may simply avoid those topics altogether.”
When gatekeepers act arbitrarily — say, approving an artist’s fundraiser, and then abruptly reversing that decision weeks later and withholding the funds the artist raised, with minimal transparency and no route for appeal — they risk amplifying that chilling effect.
How many lesser-known artists have gone through similar ordeals, or self-censored for fear of being shut out of their industry or key channels for producing their art, without the public ever knowing? Did you know about Mike Baron’s and Nina Paley’s canceled fundraisers before you read this piece?
Crowdfunding platforms fail to deliver on their promises of creative freedom
The argument isn’t that private businesses and organizations must associate with people against their will. It’s that these associations — particularly those upon which people rely for expressive activity, and those which provide services that are essential to life in modern society — should consider how their actions contribute to or detract from a culture where people feel free to express their authentic selves. They should consider both the individual and cumulative impact of a growing number of companies and institutions shunning anyone who thinks differently.
To be sure, many organizations have associational interests with a strong expressive component central to their existence. A club or nonprofit organization, for instance, may openly advocate for certain ideological values. To hire staff hostile to those values would undermine the organization’s expressive purpose, and it would be silly to criticize an organization for refusing to destroy itself. But this interest in screening members, users, or customers for their ideological views may be comparatively weak for other private entities, such as businesses like banks, hotels, and payment processors that provide run-of-the-mill services. A crowdfunding site could fall closer to one side of this spectrum or the other depending on whether it’s a broad-based provider — essentially acting as a payment intermediary like PayPal or Venmo — or has a clear and specific ideological mission.
As FIRE said in the context of the threat to free speech by online payment processors:
Access to online payment systems is crucial for the innumerable individuals and organizations that rely on financial support for their expressive activity. It’s essential to content creators’ ability to earn a living, to websites’ and other businesses’ ability to raise revenue, to fundraising by political candidates and nonprofit organizations, and to everyday Americans’ ability to consume content and support causes they believe in. When payment processing services act as political hall monitors or moral arbiters deciding what speech and viewpoints are out of bounds, they present a grave threat to free expression.
But whatever type of association crowdfunding websites are, they shouldn’t advertise one thing and then deliver another, frustrating users’ reasonable expectations of creative freedom.
Kickstarter’s website says its “mission is to help bring creative projects to life.” The mission page adds, “We believe that art and creative expression are essential to a healthy and vibrant society, and the space to create requires protection.” Or take this passage:
We don’t want art world elites and entertainment executives to define our culture; we want creative people—even those who’ve never made anything before—to take the wheel. We help creators connect directly with their communities, putting power where it belongs
Kickstarter’s cancellation of the “Private American” campaign plainly contradicts these values. The company assumed the very gatekeeping power it says it wants to neutralize.
Indiegogo, for its part, has similar language on its website about bringing creative and innovative ideas to fruition:
Crowdfunding on Indiegogo empowers people to unite around the ideas that matter to them, and together make those ideas come to life. Whether you're searching for the latest in tech, supporting your favorite independent filmmaker, or helping an important cause, you can find something that inspires you on Indiegogo..
And yet the company canceled one crowdfunding campaign and shadowbanned another because it decided — after the campaigns already went live and raised thousands of dollars — it didn’t like the ideas involved (or perhaps feared public backlash). Does Indiegogo empower people to unite around the ideas that matter to them, or the ideas that matter to Indiegogo?
While Kickstarter and Indiegogo also bury in their rules prohibitions on “hate speech” or “offensive material,” these vague standards cannot be reconciled with the companies’ lofty commitments to creative freedom on their homepages and in their mission statements. FIRE has encountered this problem again and again at private colleges that trumpet their commitment to free speech from the rooftops but maintain speech-restrictive policies. In fact, the crowdfunding platforms’ bans on “offensive” speech are reminiscent of the speech codes that have plagued college students and faculty for decades. The platforms’ appeals to these standards are yet another illustration of how hopelessly vague and subjective they are, and how they fail to give reasonable notice of what’s prohibited.
They wanted to stop those ideas from coming into the world. They wanted to decide for others what art is fit to consume.
Such restrictions are a mess when applied to artistic expression — a product of human imagination often susceptible to multiple interpretations, and which frequently intends not to proselytize but rather to convey or evoke a mood or emotion, to entertain, or to provoke the viewer to think and reflect. Some art may simply be a burst of creativity that, in the artist’s mind, has no specific purpose at all. Applying nebulous speech codes to an already subjective and often enigmatic form of human expression is a recipe for arbitrary censorship.
That’s all in addition to the crowdfunding platforms’ lack of transparency and fairness in the way they pulled the rug out from under artists in the middle of their successful campaigns and withheld all the money they raised.
Don’t cancel — criticize
In “On Liberty,” John Stuart Mill spoke of the threat of “social tyranny,” or the “tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compels all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.” Mill thought that social pressure, taken to its extreme, was “more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t criticize ideas we think are bad or harmful. That’s part of free speech. But there’s a difference between criticism and canceling. Jonathan Rauch draws some sensible distinctions:
Criticism marshals evidence and arguments in a rational effort to persuade. Canceling, by contrast, seeks to organize and manipulate the social or media environment in order to isolate, deplatform or intimidate ideological opponents. It is about shaping the information battlefield, not seeking truth; and its intent—or at least its predictable outcome—is to coerce conformity and reduce the scope for forms of criticism that are not sanctioned by the prevailing consensus of some local majority.
Demands for censorship are, of course, constitutionally protected speech. But we shouldn’t pretend they’re conducive to a vibrant culture of free expression.
The detractors who called on Kickstarter to cancel the “Private American” crowdfunding campaign, for instance, went beyond mere criticism of his art and ideas. They wanted to stop those ideas from coming into the world. They wanted to decide for others what art is fit to consume. And, given that the company initially approved the campaign, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Kickstarter’s sudden reversal in the face of complaints and bad publicity was simply a cynical bid to avoid the stigma of hosting controversial content. That doesn’t sound like something for free speech advocates to celebrate.
Laws don’t emerge from the ether, causes unknown. They’re a reflection of what a society believes is true and important.
Strong legal protections for free speech and a robust culture of free expression are both foundational to a healthy, innovative, pluralistic democracy. Even those who care only about the former should be concerned by threats to the latter and the mounting evidence that our enthusiasm for the idea of free speech is waning. Laws don’t emerge from the ether, causes unknown. They’re a reflection of what a society believes is true and important.
We’re all better off in a society that believes in open discourse and tolerance for diverse views, and that leaves broad room for artistic expression — a society in which, acknowledging our fallibility, we resist the impulse to demonize, deplatform, and ostracize those who think differently, and instead engage with and challenge ideas with which we disagree.