Free Speech Should Never Be Silenced — Even On Social Media
Short Link: http://www.jsmtech.org/free-speech-on-social-media
Read Time: 17 min
Platforms of “social media, the Supreme Court observed last year, are ‘the modern public square’” (qtd. in “Stress Test for Free Speech”). In the old days, we could walk over to the public square and share opinions unhindered without repercussions. In recent years; however, human technology progressed. Horses were replaced with cars. Large masts with engines on ships. Candles with electric lights. Humans can talk with one another and convey ideas across the world at the snap of a finger. In the information age, we humans have access to more information than most humans have had access to in their life combined through the internet, which allows for this information to be shared quickly. The US News reported that Curtis Simon and Clark Nardinelli, who were studying how English cities grew, found that “the creativity of the market economy – the increasing returns so important in modern growth theory – in large part arises from what happens when people with information get together and talk. The talk is necessary to turn information into productive knowledge” (Millsap). The human tendency to get in the way; however, is something that remains the same. Humans continue to limit free speech all across the world. Especially in America, it is contrary to what the Founding Fathers intended for our democracy which was created to be an open place where ideas could be shared freely and without consequences. They engineered the constitution to account for these core principles. However, they could have never imagined how much the ideas and innovation of the country they created would flourish. Our modern public squares fail to guarantee its users that they will be able to share their thoughts and ideas without repercussions. Free speech, the cornerstone of American democracy, should never be silenced even on social media. Free speech should be valued over hate speech, just as the Founding Fathers intended. Social media in the status quo censors certain political and religious voices while letting others go free to their own discretion. And finally, should we trust social media companies, the Government, or the people to hold the keys to censorship of social media?
The First Amendment to the Constitution says, “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” (“First Amendment”). In essence, free speech is the “right to express opinions and ideas without interference, censorship, or punishment by the government” (“Freedom of Speech”). Free speech allows people to share their ideas without fearing repercussions by the US Government. The Founding Fathers understood that freedom of speech was such an important right because it could further innovation and new technology that they included it as an amendment to our Constitution. With people free to talk as they please, without the worry of other parties shutting them down, ideas are shared unhindered and citizens are free to share their personally held political beliefs.
These ideas were not just thought up by the Founding Fathers. The ancient Athenians had found similar principles. Bruce S. Thorton writing for the Hoover Digest called it “no accident” that “the first constitutional government allowing widespread participation in governing, also invented the idea of free political speech.” Thorton continued to claim that the “link between political freedom and speech is obvious in the formula that opened the Athenian assembly and that Euripides declared ‘the call of freedom’ (Thorton.)” The call of freedom allowed for those with good advice to make it known to the city, allowing for open discourse on any subject. This free speech furthered knowledge in Athens which would allow people to live better lives. We’ve seen that free speech in democracies from the past actually works to keep its citizens free which is why free speech should be kept in the current system.
If free speech is the ability to talk without being judged, then what is hate speech? Hate speech, as Supreme Court Justice Samiel Alito during the trial of Matal v. Tam (2017), found is “speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground[s]...” (“Freedom of Speech”). This has the effect of making hate speech subjective; however. In most cases, one man’s hate speech is another man’s free speech. This is because the application of the definition of hate speech is mostly left up to the interpreter which would mean that claims of hate speech are “more likely to be premised by biased and partial value judgments that reflect our political and personal preferences including whom we like and, maybe even more importantly, whom we dislike” (“When Free Speech”). This means that elements of free speech could be considered hate speech. Which one under the Constitution is allowed to prevail?
As it turned out, the Supreme Court, setting a precedent, ruled in Matal v. Tam (2017) that hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. Specifically, Supreme Court Justice Samiel Alito, after giving his definition of hate speech, went on to say that “the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate’” (qtd. in “Freedom of Speech”). The US Constitution protects and favors free speech over hate speech for good reasons. Hate speech could be twisted by our Government and used as an excuse to keep citizens in the dark or suppress dissidents and people who do not agree with the Government's position. We can see this through examples of how other governments, with less free speech laws, limit the free speech of their citizens to benefit themselves. Just a few months ago, the “Indian government shut down the internet in disputed Kashmir” in an effort to stop any news from getting out, “Sudan shut down social media to prevent protesters from organising [sic]; Congo's regime switched off mobile networks so it could rig an election in the dark; and Chad nobbled social media to silence protests against the president's plan to stay in power until 2033 (The new censors).” The Founding Fathers understood how tyranny reigned when free speech was suppressed and made sure that their constitution would protect against such things so that this would never happen in the United States.
However, social media companies are in no way bound to protect free speech rights as the US Government is. Allowing social media companies to censor content on their platform allows for them, just as any government, to have their biases affect the process. For example, Facebook has been accused of being biased towards conservative content on its platform by removing conservative articles from its news page:
During the presidential election, critics accused Facebook of deleting from its "trending" list articles from conservative news sources. These claims gained credence from statements by Facebook executives criticizing Trump and from the disclosures that editors, not algorithms, selected the titles promoted as "trending." (Thorton.)
Social media companies have also been accused of being biased in specific political topics such as abortion. In 2018, when Ireland was to vote on a referendum for repealing the Eighth Amendment, an amendment that made abortion illegal, the New York Times reported that “Facebook blocked ads related to the abortion campaign from groups outside Ireland, while Google banned all referendum-related spots altogether” (Satariano). But Colum Kenny, B.C.L., Barrister-at-Law, Ph.D. and an emeritus professor at Dublin City University, writing for the left-leaning Irish Times expressed his concerns at the social media companies “decisions to ban online ads relating to the Eighth Amendment,” claiming that they came after, “it was claimed that the No side had been funded from abroad to outgun the Yes side online” (Kenny).
These incidents are not just limited to politics, social media companies have shown bias in other areas, including religion. In 2018, Facebook removed a post by a Christian gospel music group who uploaded a post and paid for a viewing boost for their new song, “What Would Heaven Look Like.” Facebook wrongfully cited the post as “‘political content’ and blocked the video altogether” (Sisario). The music video opened with clips from the demonstrations in Charlottesville and was ironically about how there would be no discrimination when we get to Heaven. Facebook reversed its removal of the post soon after the incident but did not restore the paid boost even though Zion’s Joy did not advocate any political thoughts in their song save for the mention of “people of every color, loving one another” in heaven. Social media companies have additionally been accused of favoring certain religious ideas and “have censored posts by critics of Islam like Brother Rachid, while allowing harsh criticisms of other religions” (Thorton). By social media companies censoring posts that only criticized certain religions, they have clearly shown their biases and have allowed for one side of the conversation to have the right of free course and denied the other side of the same privilege.
Therefore, If social media is to be censored, who should hold those keys? Should social media companies be trusted? With their clear biases against certain groups, it is un-probable that they will be able to be a fair judge in deciding which content can stay and which content must be removed. In fact, social media companies are known for their censoring mistakes such as when Facebook censored the Declaration of Independence, one of the documents that founded this nation, on the fourth of July but promptly reversed its decision after the backlash (Rosenberg).
Should we then trust our Government to censor the modern public squares? The Founding Fathers would disagree. They created the First Amendment to prevent the Government from censoring free speech in the public square, not to make it easier to censor. Their decision made the public square an open place to discuss topics unhindered. But letting the Government censor social media would essentially allow it to abuse power just as it had done in the past. The ACLU reported that “many people suffered along the way,” of freedom of expression, “such as labor leader Eugene V. Debs, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison under the Espionage Act just for telling a rally of peaceful workers to realize they were ‘fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder’” (“Freedom of Expression”). Debs was a victim of the US Government abusing its powers during the first world war by violating his rights given to him by the First Amendment. This was one of the reasons that led the ACLU to conclude that “we should not give the government the power to decide which opinions are hateful, for history has taught us that government is more apt to use this power to prosecute minorities than to protect them” (“Freedom of Expression”).
Perhaps giving the majority of users of the social media platform the keys would work? This would; however, also be an error in judgment. It would essentially give 50% plus one of the population the right to suppress the views of everyone else. Humans are broken beings and we have effectively shown that we cannot be trusted to do what is right for everyone. The only way to do what the Founding Fathers truly intended would be to let the modern public square operate exactly like a public square of old. By extending the First Amendment to social media companies, no one would be allowed to censor speech on social media sites. Users of social media will then be able to speak their ideas freely without fear of repercussions by either our Government or other biased third-party social media companies. However, just like in the public square, this does not guarantee users of the modern public square freedom of speech when they break laws of misconduct or other laws. Users must still listen to existing rules and regulations from the government and face the courts if they break them. Users should additionally not expect to keep their right to free speech if they prevent other users from accessing their own rights to free speech.
Adam Millsap in an opinion piece for the US News claims that “spreading ideas and information requires communication – people talking to one another, attending lectures and presentations, watching videos, etc. – it's likely that limiting speech, either formally or informally, would have pernicious effects on innovation and harm economic growth in the United States” (Millsap). Extending the First Amendment to social media would eliminate all biased parties from the mix allowing for more innovation, new technology, and more economic growth — just as when the Founding Fathers made free speech in the public square a basic citizen’s right.
Free speech, the cornerstone of American democracy, should never be silenced even on social media. Free speech should be valued over hate speech, just like the Founding Fathers’ intended, because one man’s hate speech is another man’s free speech. Social media in the status quo is free to censor political and religious voices — effectively failing to guarantee that our modern public squares allow its users to freely share their thoughts and ideas without repercussions. That led to the question of who should be allowed to censor social media. It was shown that social media companies should not be trusted. Neither should the Government based on history from the past. We could try allowing the majority of users to set the standards, but this just means that the 50% plus one control and can eliminate the free speech rights of the rest of the population. The best solution would be to do exactly what the Founding Fathers would have done if social media existed when the Constitution was created: extend the First Amendment to social media platforms. Users will still be bound to other laws on conduct, but they will be free to convey their ideas freely, which was found by Curtis Simon and Clark Nardinelli to further innovation and provide economic growth. But in the end, no matter what laws are made and no matter what actions are taken towards free speech, social media companies, the modern public squares of our century, are not the problem. Humans are the problem. We are broken beings who have fallen. It cannot be said better than how Emily Parker put it writing in an opinion piece for the New York Times:
Facebook and Twitter are just a mirror, reflecting us. They reveal a society that is painfully divided, gullible to misinformation, dazzled by sensationalism, and willing to spread lies and promote hate. We don't like this reflection, so we blame the mirror, painting ourselves as victims of Silicon Valley manipulation.
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