YouTube Limits Firearms Videos; Gun Rights Group Cries Censorship

YouTube has broadened its restrictions on gun-related videos, while thousands of Americans are mobilizing to demand stricter gun controls Saturday in a mass march spurred by young survivors of a deadly armed attack on a Florida high school last month.

Google’s popular video-hosting site will bar videos that facilitate direct sales of firearms or accessories, and those that contain links to websites where such purchases can be made, YouTube’s revised policy states. Bump stocks and other add-ons that convert guns into automatic-fire weapons are among the accessories covered by the new rules.

YouTube is also prohibiting videos that show people how to make firearms, ammunition, silencers, high-capacity magazines, and bump stocks and similar devices that enable automatic firing.

The passionate teenage gun control activists who survived the fatal Feb. 14 shooting spree in Parkland, FL, have prompted large retailers Walmart (NYSE: WMT) and Dick’s Sporting Goods (NYSE: DKS) to rein in their gun sales practices, as the New York Times reported. The students may also be having some effect on YouTube. But the video platform’s new limits on gun-related content don’t mark a first for YouTube, according to a spokeswoman’s statement quoted by Bloomberg.

“We routinely make updates and adjustments to our enforcement guidelines across all of our policies,” the statement says. “While we’ve long prohibited the sale of firearms, we recently notified creators of updates we will be making around content promoting the sale or manufacture of firearms and their accessories.”

While public pressure has mounted on social media companies and other private businesses to help reduce gun violence, advocates for gun manufacturers and owners are challenging the legal right of YouTube and Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) to limit firearms-related content on their platforms.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association for the firearms industry, made a daring argument that both Facebook and YouTube are violating the constitutional rights of gun sellers and users.

In a post this week, the organization claimed that the social media giants are curtailing the free speech rights of gun sellers under the First Amendment by the exercise of “what amounts to censorship.” And by making it harder for buyers to contact gun sellers and make purchases, the trade association argues, the tech companies are also impinging on the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

However, private companies such as Facebook and YouTube were not the intended targets when the nation’s founders enacted the ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution that make up the Bill of Rights. These amendments were crafted to protect the rights of individuals against actions by the government. (See the history from the Bill of Rights Institute here.) Under the First Amendment, it is government agencies that are strictly constrained from curbing free speech.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation argues, however, that those constraints on government should apply to YouTube and Facebook as well, because they each function “as a virtual public square.’’

In support of this claim, the association cites a federal appellate court ruling in favor of a group that was refused a permit to open a gun shop in San Leandro, CA. The court opinion acknowledged that restraints on commerce in firearms could undermine the right to keep and bear arms.

“This argument can be logically extended to social media platforms,” the National Shooting Sports Foundation now asserts in its post.

But the court’s decision applied only to the restraints that could, or could not, be imposed on gun shop locations by a government agency—the Alameda County Board of Supervisors—which had denied the gun shop permit under its zoning regulations. The ruling would not have forced a private entity, such as a newspaper or a church bulletin, to accept gun shop ads.

Even so, social media organizations are struggling to create rules about acceptable content that satisfy their two often-conflicting business goals—to accommodate as broad a user population as possible, yet without offending anyone. Not surprisingly, with their curbs on gun-related content, they didn’t please everybody.

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