Social media platforms are not bound by the First Amendment – The Rocky Mountain Collegian
February 8, 2022
Editor’s note: All content in the opinion section reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a position taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.
In recent years, the Internet has become a hotbed of misinformation. In 1710 Jonathan Swift reflexive that “the lie flies away, and the truth comes limping after it”. Three centuries later, this quote still rings true, especially on social media platforms where the truth often goes unchecked by the everyday user.
COVID-19 has thrust us face to face into an era that has further exacerbated this problem, giving rise to misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine, the coronavirus itself, apparent treatments like ivermectin and ultraviolet therapy, mask feelings and more.
In response, the social media platforms that harbored these lies decided to suspend users or add a flag to their posts, disclose that the information displayed may contain inaccuracies or erroneous information. Users have took up armscalling these labels and punishments censorship and a violation of their First Amendment rights.
While it often comes up in conversations surrounding misinformation on social media, the First Amendment – which protects freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and petition, and freedom of the press – protects only US citizens against the violation of these rights by the government, not by any entities or private platforms.
Those who spread false information on these websites seem to regard the First Amendment as their get-out-of-jail card, but that’s just not the reality.
Just as private companies have the right deny service to well, just about anyone, social media companies can do the same. Although little actually read them, each platform has policies and rules that users must adhere to when using their service. Twitter has Strategies on COVID-19 misinformation, violence and manipulated media.
“So, is suspending someone for spreading misinformation censorship? In the most literal definition of the word, of course. But are someone’s First Amendment rights in jeopardy when they’re given the Twitter startup? Absolutely not.”
Even sitting presidents are not immune to the iron fist of social media guidelines. In 2020, former President Donald Trump posted several tweets containing unverified claims that the 2020 presidential election was being actively stolen. Twitter responded by attaching a flag, which clearly stated that “some or all of the content shared in this Tweet is disputed and may mislead about an election or other civic process”.
In January 2021, Trump was suspended from YouTube and Facebook and permanently banned from Twitter. In the months that followed, states like Wisconsin, Florida and Texas bill that would prevent social media platforms from banning users from having a specific point of view or censoring them.
So, is suspending someone for spreading misinformation censorship? In the most literal definition of the word, of course. But are someone’s First Amendment rights in active jeopardy when they get started on Twitter? Absolutely not. Social media platforms are not obligated to host false information and, as noted, the First Amendment only protects government repression.
Courtenay Daum, a political science professor at Colorado State University, expressed a similar sentiment.
“I think it’s reasonable to say that it’s censorship in the sense that the word censorship means to remove or ban, and social media companies take action to remove and ban some content, but all forms censorship are not violations of the First Amendment,” Daum said.
Daum went on to say that no one’s First Amendment rights are violated when they are suspended or banned from social media. Twitter is not an agent of the state or federal government. It has its own rules for its platform, and when people use it in a way that doesn’t comply with those rules, Twitter can punish them as they see fit.
Unfortunately for Trump and other exiled web dwellers, the First Amendment does not allow them to lash out on social media platforms, and forcing Twitter and Facebook to change their policies to allow such egregious behavior is rather draconian or harsh. Those who wish to share their lopsided conspiracy theories can do so elsewhere.