The First Amendment enshrines one of Americans’ most cherished rights. What we usually refer to as “free speech” is foundational to our democratic republic. It is the envy of people around the world who live under totalitarian regimes that suppress their speech.
The text of the First Amendment reads:
“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.”
Those 45 words are crucial to the expression, and regulation, of the myriad forms of speech in which roughly 330 million Americans engage.
There have always been questions and controversies regarding the limits of First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court has repeatedly weighed in to adjudicate esoteric issues regarding speech. Not surprisingly, technological advances have often played a role. Today, the ubiquity and incredible power of social media companies have invited great scrutiny — and increasing calls for government regulation.
Recently, conservative pundits have been very vocal regarding alleged “liberal bias” among social media companies. Such complaints have long been directed at publications such as The New York Times and television networks such as CNN. Now, talk radio hosts and far-right “news” personalities are leveling charges of “censorship” against tech behemoths such as Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Google and Amazon. (I marvel at people who vehemently complain that “Facebook and Twitter are biased against conservatives” — while using Facebook and Twitter to complain!)
Unfortunately, I don’t have space to delve into the hypocrisy of conservative outlets regarding their claims of political bias. But I do find it interesting that those who support a baker’s right to refuse to make a cake for a gay couple have a problem with tech companies’ right to refuse service to those who support domestic terrorists. As Trevor Noah pointed out, right-wing pundits’ complaints about “censorship” are curious given that multiple television networks, social media platforms and traditional media publications are dedicated to the propagation of their viewpoints, even when such viewpoints are fact-free.
To be sure, some social media companies have booted off their platforms a few high-profile right-wing heroes — including Donald Trump — for violating their terms of service (i.e., the contract to which users agree in exchange for access). However, such account suspensions do not constitute censorship. If Twitter and Facebook wanted to limit Trump’s political views, they could have banned him years ago; the profit motive prevented them from doing so. That changed when Trump incited an insurrection that nearly brought down the government.
If the core issue were “liberal bias,” Amazon Web Services (AWS) — a “cloud” platform — would never have allowed companies like Parler to use its services in the first place. Or, if AWS somehow didn’t know Parler’s perspective initially, it would have taken all of one day of posts to figure it out. Thus, the notion that AWS kicked Parler off its platform for political reasons is absolute nonsense.
Further, the courts have repeatedly affirmed private companies’ right to regulate users’ behavior. (This is similar to a restaurant’s right to require diners to wear
shirts and shoes.) In short, only the government can engage in censorship. Anyone who disagrees with that well-established fact is either ignorant of the law or willfully embraces “alternative facts.”
However, it is reasonable to be concerned about the substantial market power that social media companies wield. Their size raises legitimate issues regarding their ability — and their responsibility — to regulate certain types of speech. Most prominent is their responsibility to limit calls for violence. A related responsibility is to regulate the widespread dissemination of disinformation (and outright lies) that encourage people to commit violence. Indeed, the latter is the key issue in Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial.
As a free market capitalist, I support a company’s right to limit the behaviors in which its customers engage. Obviously, I make exceptions for illegal actions, racial discrimination. But I encourage the rigorous exchange of political views — even most of the ones with which I strongly disagree. I draw the line at supporting domestic terrorism — as should all genuine patriots.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.