Airbnb decides to get political on Unite the Right march

There will be plenty of scrutiny focused on tomorrow’s Unite the Right march in Washington, from both the media and law enforcement. (They really need a new name because these people do not represent “the right” in the country in any fashion.) But the marchers may run into more problems than just counterprotesters. If they have reservations through Airbnb and are discovered by the company, the platform is going to be canceling them and unlisting the hosts who take them in. (ABC News)

Protesters planning to participate in the “Unite the Right” rally in Washington, D.C., this weekend may have some trouble finding a place to stay.

Airbnb is warning users that if they are found to be in violation of the company’s policies, they could have their reservations canceled and their accounts removed from the home sharing service.

The company is citing its community values as grounds to cut ties with participants of the rallies, which stemmed from a protest last year to protect Confederate statues — which included neo-Nazi groups — but exploded in violence.

“When we identify and determine that there are those who would be pursuing behavior on the Airbnb platform that would be antithetical to the Airbnb Community Commitment, we seek to take appropriate action, which may include removing them from the platform,” according to a statement from Airbnb.

It’s not hard to understand why Airbnb might make this decision from an emotional or even business perspective. Who wants to be seen as supporting or associating with a group of white supremacists, right? And it’s allegedly not the first time they’ve done this. The company claims to have nixed the reservations of “hundreds” of participants at the Charlottesville march last year. Airbnb never released any total numbers, but Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler appeared to confirm it last summer, saying that “hundreds” of his supporters had lost their rooms because of Airbnb.

But is this the correct move for the short-term rental app to make? Granted, Airbnb is a private sector business, not the government, so this isn’t technically a free speech issue. But they’re supposed to be serving anyone, regardless of demographics or even ideology, provided they aren’t using the service in the commission of a crime. Obviously, nobody wants to see a bunch of guys with swastikas goose-stepping down their street, but one of the older tenets of free speech is that unpopular speech is the most important to protect. That’s why the cops have traditionally protected the Klansmen from the crowds when they organize their rallies.

And how is Airbnb making the distinction of who is there to participate in Kessler’s parade? Was there some checkbox on the form that I missed? Name. Date of travel. Credit Card Number. And, “oh, by the way… are you traveling to participate in a white power march?” How do they know they aren’t booting out people who are there to oppose the march? Or simply there for some other reason entirely?

Denying the marchers a room, a car rental reservation or a seat in a restaurant is effectively squelching their ability to speak. Far better to publicly condemn the Nazis than to restrict their activities. Because, as the old saying goes, if you take away their rights, yours may be next on the chopping block. Airbnb is generating needless controversy for their company by doing this and opening themselves and their hosts up to potential lawsuits in the process.

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