The First Amendment prohibits Congress from making any law that abridges free speech.
The amendment, originally meant to protect what people had to say (literally with their mouths) has been applied to many forms of expression including things like campaign spending and protesting the draft.
Now, it’s reached a new platform: The Internet.
Here’s the deal: As long as government is involved speech cannot be stifled, however, where government is not involved (like in private enterprise) this is not necessarily the case. Let me ask you a few questions…
Why does this matter?
Every time you go online I’m guessing you visit websites including (but not limited to) Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Well, my friends, those are operated by private companies, meaning they have their own rules regarding free speech that may not look like the First Amendment. Basically, it’s their way or the highway.
These sites have the option of censoring your content. If Instagram doesn’t like a picture you post, they can remove it. If you tweet something that is offensive to Twitter, it’s gone.
But what if you don’t want to deal with this?
You’ll have to take your speech elsewhere. As harsh as this seems, that’s how it is. On these sites your speech is no longer protected by the First Amendment.
That might be lawful, but is that ethical?
I don’t believe it is. These major social media companies basically have a monopoly over the type of media they provide. Not literally, but they do have a heckuvuh lot of control over these outlets. With that being said, I believe that they should be monitored and regulated.
What’s the deal right now?
Facebook has clear guidelines to what they consider appropriate free speech. They promote free expression but do not allow, “hate speech.” Which brings up the whether hate speech is allowed under free speech and if hate speech crushes other’s right to free speech (yeah, it’s confusing). You can read all about it here.
Guess who doesn’t ban hate speech? That’s right, Twitter. They pride themselves on being an outlet for absolute free speech. Recently that has caused a lot of problems for the company. One woman complained about threats being communicated through tweets, to which the company responded that this kind of content did not violate its terms of service. They also said the police could determine if there was risk of actual harm from these threats. However, after the beheading of journalist James Foley, Twitter attempted to remove any graphic images of the event. Because they are not regulated by a governing body, Twitter is able to choose what content to keep and delete. See what they have to say about it below:
Finally, Instagram takes responsibility for what is posted on their service and maintains the right to remove content that violates their terms of service.
It means that social media may not be as much as an outlet for free expression as we though. It means that even though we are protected from laws that censor free speech, when we agree to use services online we might be subject to censorship.
Although most platforms have loose guidelines for what is appropriate, this could change. They have complete control. These platforms could begin removing content that portrays them in a less desirable way to advertisers and new users.
What should you have learned?
Know what you are getting yourself into before you create a social media account, and stay informed about what you can and cannot post.