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How a killer cop forced GoFundMe to admit money isn’t free speech

This is a pretty incredible point for the site to make.

When a South Carolina police officer killed an unarmed black man earlier this week, it barely made the front page in North Charleston, the small town where it took place. After video of the event surfaced, leading to the indictment of Officer Michael Slager for the murder of Walter Scott, the story has become the latest in a depressingly long line of news of unarmed black men unfairly gunned down by law enforcement officers. However, with the gruesomely clear footage aired around the world, chances for an actual attempt at justice have never looked better.

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One of the hallmarks of these incidents have been the subsequent attempt by supporters of the cops in question to raise money online, unsolicited or not. A GoFundMe campaign for Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last August, raised over $430,000 in just a single month. George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch captain who shot and killed an unarmed 17-year-old over three years ago, has reportedly collected $314,000 in donations from avid supporters, a tally that supposedly went up each time Trayvon Martin’s death was mentioned on Fox News.

So it’s somewhat predictable that both Indiegogo and GoFundMe both saw attempts by supporters of Michael Slager to preemptively raise money for the trial he’ll face. However, in a rare bit of interference, GoFundMe has pulled the page devoted to Slager, citing their policy against donations toward individuals who are suspected of having committed “heinous crimes.” While not the first time GoFundMe has intervened to stop a controversial campaign, the move shows the limits of crowdfunding sites’ attempt to be for money what Facebook and Twitter are for speech. In fact, the incident as a whole might disprove the faulty assumption that money is equal to speech, online and off.

GoFundMe has struggled with being a transit point between controversial ideals and those looking to put their money forward to support those ideals. Along with the funds for Wilson and Slager, GoFundMe made some minor waves last September when they pulled the fundraising attempt of a 20-year-old woman looking to have strangers fund her abortion. Users of the site ask for medical assistance quite frequently and typically are not fooled with by site administrators, so what other than ideology could separate an abortion from any other medical service?

GoFundMe has struggled with being a transit point between controversial ideals and those looking to put their money forward to support those ideals.

GoFundMe responded to the outcry that followed by unveiling a lengthy list of topics projects are not allowed to cover—including abortion, political assassinations, and “sorcery”—for the expressed purpose of ensuring “a positive experience for all visitors.” A spokesman for the site took it a step further:”Much like Facebook and Twitter, GoFundMe is an open technology platform that allows for the exchange of ideas and opinions within the bounds of our terms of service.”

But clearly, it’s not. Facebook and Twitter are inherently domains for speech, not money. Both those sites have extremely broad margins for what is and what is not acceptable; if you avoid child porn and terroristic threats, you’re probably OK. Supporters of cops like Darren Wilson have and will take to both Facebook and Twitter to give their verbal endorsement with little to no intervention from Facebook or Twitter themselves. Clearly, GoFundMe sees itself as something different than other social media outlets specifically because they deal in money—meaning money must be different from speech.

This is a pretty incredible point for GoFundMe to make, even if they seem to be making it by accident. Whether financial endorsements should be considered speech has been a major concern in politics for the past decade; the Supreme Court officially recognized money spent on elections as constitutionally recognized speech in 1976. Typically, Americans aren’t limited in who they donate money to. If you want to be spend your fortunes building a peaceful yet determined hate group, that’s your right. As long as you aren’t providing material support to those who might harm American interests, your money is as free as your speech.

But it’s also GoFundMe’s right to limit what happens on their site. Banning the donation pages of a prospective abortion patient or a murderer’s defense fund is as much their right as it is the right of Tumblr to ban pornography. It’s their servers and, thus, their rules. But given the broad depth of topics campaigns are not allowed to cover—cryptocurrencies, assisted suicide, and gambling—it’s clear GoFundMe sees itself as something quite separate from a mere cipher for its users to pursue their dreams and aspirations.

This is a pretty incredible point for GoFundMe to make.

Part of the reason for that is likely that GoFundMe makes money off all campaigns hosted on it in a very direct way. The site collects a 5 percent flat fee on every fund hosted on the site, meaning they pull money from any issue the site’s users wish to endorse. When an Indiana pizzeria found itself at the center of a nationwide debate about whether businesses should be allowed to discriminate against gay couples, supporters raised $842,222 in just two days. GoFundMe made $42,000 off of that political uproar, a position that could appear to be opportunistic.

By attempting to avoid ownership of controversial campaigns, however, GoFundMe is actually proving it shares much more responsibility for its content because its content is not just speech—it’s money. Far more than speech, money is an assisting force towards a goal. Speech can be helpful, but money can help a killer cop defend himself, help a young woman get an abortion, or help some idiot make the lamest potato salad ever

Without meaning to, GoFundMe has laid out that difference in both their disorganized responses to controversies and hypocrisy in those responses. Michael Slager deserves nobody’s money—he abused his power in the worst way imaginable and then attempted to lie about it. I do not fault GoFundMe for dropping the fund created in his name. But the site cannot continue to pretend they are a simply a bullhorn when clearly they already know they’re deal in something far more sinister and far more powerful.

Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter

Photo via e-magic/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter is a reporter and essayist who specializes in the intersection of technology, LGBTQ issues, and privacy. In April 2018, she joined the National Center for Transgender Equality as a media relations manager.