Misconceptions about free speech and the First Amendment are getting tangled up in the growing controversy over the role of social media companies in public debate.
Don’t let confusion about free speech, companies’ business decisions and technology lead to government regulation.
Let’s start with the First Amendment:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
With minimal exceptions (such as yelling fire in a crowded theater) people can say whatever they want. The government can’t dictate speech or what the press reports.
But Facebook and Twitter aren’t the government. They are companies. They can set terms of service and decide what appears on their platforms.
But those companies and the technology they rely on have failed. Hate speech, threats, totally baseless opinion and lies masquerading as truth threaten the usefulness of those platforms.
In a simpler technology time, publishers and broadcasters were legally liable for the content they presented. But the law protects social media companies. Newspapers and broadcasters can be sued for libel. Editors and news directors serve as gatekeepers not only for fact-based stories but also to block wacky opinions and hateful, threatening statements.
However, legally, the social media companies can’t be sued, just the poster. As a result, companies opened their platforms to mostly unmoderated comments in the idealistic belief that “good” speech would drive out “bad” speech. And from the business standpoint, that policy helped build traffic and revenue.
Social media companies developed software to block comments and posts that violated terms of service and common sense. As we’ve seen, the technology hasn’t kept up with mischief from posters with a variety of motives. It’s turning out social media companies are needing to hire thousands of workers to review posts and comments instead of depending on software. It’s about time they take some responsibility whether or not the law requires it.
Anybody can stand on a soapbox in the public square and spout whatever goofy ideas they want. The government can’t stop it. But when that soapbox (Twitter, Facebook) amplifies those wacky comments millions of times, social media companies need to yank away the soapbox.
What we don’t need is government getting in the business of regulating who speaks or writes the words. Recent legislation requiring online political ads to carry who paid for them is a good idea. Those rules apply to newspapers and broadcasters. But the government has no business regulating what’s said or who says it.
Donald Trump’s recent tweets accused social media of unfairly censoring social media. “Censorship is a very dangerous thing. Speaking loudly and clearly for the Trump Administration, we won’t let that happen,” Trump tweeted.
He’s right, censorship is dangerous.
We’ve got the First Amendment to protect the free press and free speech. We don’t need the government deciding what’s good speech or bad speech on social media.