Considering the ongoing national discussion about the limits of the First Amendment, Bob Jones University will present a faculty forum, “Freedom of Speech or Censorship in the World of Big Tech,” on Monday, March 8, in Stratton Hall at 7 p.m.
Dr. Gary Weier, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, will moderate the event. Weier said he hopes the forum will help students to think about how to advocate for their rights without compromising biblical principles.
Weier said the storming of the United States Capitol on Jan. 6 heightened concerns over cancel culture and raised questions about what kinds of information are prioritized by search engine algorithms. “We want to address the issues of the day that we think are not only valuable for students but also interesting to them,” he said.
“How should we as Christians respond and what should we do in that kind of a culture?” is the question the forum will seek to answer.
Dr. Eric Newton, a seminary professor, will speak at the forum. “I think that there are several competing loyalties here,” he said, providing the examples of loyalty to the United States, loyalty to the technology platforms individuals use and loyalty to biblical principles.
“I think that is a big takeaway—that we try, not only in theory, but in practice to make sure that our worldview and our lives are aligned,” he said.
Newton was also concerned that some Christians may prioritize politics over their faith. “Over the centuries, there has been a temptation to either use religion in the name of politics or…to have a greater loyalty to politics than we should,” he said. “It ends up skewing how we live out our faith.”
Weier emphasized the importance of thinking critically and verifying what you read when investigating complicated topics such as big tech. He said faculty forums help accomplish Bob Jones University’s mission by helping students think about relevant issues from a biblical perspective. Weier also cautioned students not to get their information on current events solely from social media.
Jeanine Aumiller, who teaches in the communication studies department, will also speak at the event. “There is legitimacy on both sides of the issue, and we need to walk into a discussion like that looking for the nuances,” Aumiller said.
Aumiller said she worries many students will adopt the opinions given by their families, by favorite news sources or by their preferred political party without evaluating the ideas for themselves.
“It gives us an excuse to not think,” Aumiller said. “I think having a discussion like this where there is room for nuanced agreement or disagreement is exactly what a university should do to promote critical thinking.”
Aumiller warned students not to dogmatically insist they are right on any viewpoint not settled by Scripture.
Jennifer Miller, a lawyer who teaches the course Media Law and Ethics in the Division of Communication, will discuss the legal issues surrounding big tech. She said the months before the 2020 United States elections were when big tech became a mainstream issue.
Miller said the Bible provides important principles to consider when thinking about censorship. “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” says John 8:32, for example. She said while this verse primarily addresses Jesus’ teachings, it also illustrates the need for individuals to have open access to multiple viewpoints before making an informed decision.
Miller identifies Facebook, YouTube, Google, large media conglomerates and Amazon as examples of big tech. She said many people are concerned because of the power these companies hold over the world’s social interaction. Because of this fear, she believes many of these companies will likely face heavier government regulation in the future.
However, Miller said most attempts to regulate big tech fail because of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a 1996 law meant to protect free speech on the internet. “There are very few things they [big tech companies] can be sued for,” she said. “They requested these protections because they didn’t think they could exist without them at the time.”
Miller also said censorship historically increases when social and political unrest increases, citing examples of both World Wars and the Vietnam War. The Supreme Court struck down several censorship laws due to the First Amendment during these periods.
According to Aumiller, the debate over regulating speech goes all the way back to the time of the ancient Greek philosophers. Fearing violent mobs, Plato believed public debate on issues of the day should be left to the educated elites, but Aristotle argued everyone should have a voice.
In addition to Newton, Aumiller and Miller, Linda Abrams, faculty member in the Division of History, Government and Social Science, and Matthew Gardenghi, IT director of operations and academic technologies, will be part of the forum’s panel of speakers.