Social Media and First Amendment Rights – Twitter, Facebook/Instagram, and YouTube did something in January hardly anyone ever thought they would:
- Twitter banned former President Trump from its platform for life on January 8, two days after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol building and the same day he tweeted what the social media platform deemed were two tweets that were “in violation of our Glorification of Violence Policy.” Twitter said his ban was “permanent.” (More on this in a moment.)
- Facebook and Instagram (Facebook own Instagram) suspended Trump’s accounts because, according to the platform’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, the president “clearly…[intends] to use his remaining time in office to undermine the peaceful and lawful transition of power to his elected successor… .” Zuckerberg also said Facebook believed the “risks of allowing the President [sic] to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great.” (The platform said it would ban the president at least through January 20, yet it said the day before President Biden’s inauguration that it had no plans to lift the “indefinite” block.
- Google suspended the president on January 12 from being able to upload new material to his YouTube account for a week citing “concerns about the ongoing potential for violence.” Google on January 19 (latest information at the time of this writing) continued the suspension for another week for the same reason.
Many people immediately remarked that the social media suspensions were a violation of the former president’s First Amendment rights.
But the suspensions and bans are not free speech violations!
The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press; or the right of people to peaceable to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
In plain language this means that the U.S. government (Congress, in the amendment’s clause quoted above) may not take away someone’s right of free speech. But private businesses, of which Twitter, Facebook and Google are? Yes, they can stop someone from using their platforms to communicate with others.
These bans, however, DO come with important issues regarding free speech rights.
First, as private companies, the platforms could someday reverse their stance and allow the former president to post again.
Yet, even though they are private entities and provide services – or not – to anyone they choose, many free speech and Constitutional experts have publicly worried that this could result in more private entities restricting the public’s ability to freely communicate with one another.
But the confusion – the fact that people didn’t know that private media companies have every right to prevent someone from using their services – is perhaps the most troubling. Here’s why (and, be prepared, this is a long quote from the link above):
Do people know what free speech is anymore? I worry that many Americans are confused and under-informed. You see people arguing that Tump’s ban from Twitter, or not publishing Josh Hawley, constitutes first amendment violations – but that’s just completely baseless. People tend to be unfamiliar with what the exceptions and limitations are to the first amendment, and in many ways have lost sight of why we protect free speech.
Which is … ? The contention between opposing ideas is a catalyst to get to the truth. If people can call into question your claims and bring to light contrary evidence, that pushes forward debate. Free speech promotes tolerance and civil engagement. It is part of individual autonomy and how each of us expresses our identities. It’s an underpinning for artistic achievements, for scientific progress, for economic prosperity.
Get ready for a lot more talk moving forward about social media and First Amendment rights
We’re not First Amendment experts by any means, but the concern is real and worth keeping an eye on, especially since the chances are great that increased awareness of the issue someday could affect your own social media channels in some way.