Neil Young, Spotify, Joe Rogan, And “Censorship”

Neil Young made headlines recently by calling on Spotify, a music streaming service, to remove his music so long as Spotify offers the podcasts of Joe Rogan, a commentator who Young accused of spreading misinformation about COVID vaccines. Young’s music was then removed from Spotify, and a number of other artists have followed his lead and removed their music–all of which caused Spotify’s stock to take a hit and prompted Rogan, whose podcast has such a large following that he has a large contract with Spotify, to offer what has been called a “quasi-apology” in hopes of bringing the controversy to a close.

The varying responses to the Young-Rogan-Spotify dust-up have been interesting. Some have applauded Neil Young for taking a principled stand, whereas others, like Jon Stewart, have suggested that Young’s approach is akin to supporting censorship. Stewart is quoted as saying: “Don’t censor. Engage.” I suspect that Stewart’s position is based on a broader concern about efforts to prevent people from ever expressing unpopular views or forcing people to adopt only one viewpoint because some people find the opposing position too upsetting–efforts that are contrary to America’s traditional tolerance of a wide spectrum of opinions and that prevent the give-and-take that our political and social system is built on.

I’m a big proponent of free speech, and I get Stewart’s broader point, but I don’t think Neil Young’s position constitutes censorship. In fact, I think the opposite is true: what Neil Young did constituted speech in its own right. Young took an action that sent an unmistakable message about his views on what Joe Rogan was saying about COVID vaccination. Neil Young had as much right to clearly express his views as Joe Rogan has to express his in the first place. A boycott has long been recognized as a form of protest, and protests have long been recognized as speech. And there is a big difference, under the Constitution and in the law, between a private actor like Young making a decision about where his music is played, for example, and governmental bodies or public institutions acting to quash dissent or silence contrary views.

To be sure, Neil Young could have simply written a public letter objecting to what Rogan was saying, but it’s pretty obvious that it would not have had anywhere close to the impact that his public stance and boycott has produced. Young gets to choose his form of speech, and I’d say his chosen approach has expressed his position very powerfully and effectively. And his position has produced results: Spotify has now announced that it will add content advisories to podcasts that discuss COVID issues, and Rogan has been made aware that his positions are on the radar screen for many people who might not have been aware of them otherwise. That’s not censorship or anti-free speech activity–instead, that’s just being held accountable for your opinions and statements.

One important point in all of this is that both Neil Young and Joe Rogan continue to have forums where they can express their views on the issues of the day