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Opinion: Arguments over free speech on social media demand understanding about First Amendment

The increasing publicity afforded major social media platforms’ decisions to remove certain posts, and their rationales for doing so, has led to a cacophony of complaint and criticism, much of which invokes allegations of bias interwoven with shouts of a constitutional guarantee of “freedom of speech.”

The debate is an important one, and the issues involved both complex and important to the nation’s future.

Recently, Facebook removed a post by President Donald Trump from its platform, saying it provided incorrect information related to the ongoing battle against COVID-19. Earlier, Twitter had removed a post in which the president retweeted a controversial video, which also was rejected by the social media platform over concerns of spreading misinformation related to the disease.

But the president is far from the only person to have content removed by the major players in the social media arena. Many others have had the same fate, including elected officials, commentators, advocates, protesters, would-be “influencers,” and average Janes and Joes.

In fact, the number of media posts removed for one reason or another are incredibly staggering, reaching into the billions. For example, in the last three months of 2019, Facebook took action against nearly 40 million pieces of content for one reason or another. Some of those posts were identified by other users as being inappropriate, some identified by Facebook itself.

Posts are removed for a wide variety of reasons. Hate speech, sexual content, violent content, spam, fake accounts, promotion of suicide and terrorism are just a few of the reasons for which content can be removed from Facebook, which took action against near 5 million posts related just to “organized hate” in the first three months of 2020. Five million in three months.

Times editorial board

Staff members

  • Norman Baggs, general manager

  • Shannon Casas, editor in chief

Community members

  • Cheryl Brown

  • David George

  • Mandy Harris

  • Brent Hoffman

  • J.C. Smith

  • Tom Vivelo

So it’s not just about politics, though that’s the arena that grabs the most attention and generates the most calls for some sort of action.

Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville has responded to a call for action, co-sponsoring a piece of legislation that would amend the Communications Decency Act. The Collins’ legislation is, entitled the Stop the Censorship Act of 2020.

A press release from Collins’ office says Big Tech has abused protections against liability provided by the existing law in order to “censor competition and lawful political speech. Political candidates, small businesses, authors, artists, supporters of President Trump, and the President himself are consistently being censored by Google, Twitter, Facebook and other online platforms,” according to the press release, which also quotes one of the bill’s co-sponsors as saying that companies like Twitter and Google are “unlawfully abusing the First Amendment rights of their users.”

But is that really the case?

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …”

But the rules being applied by social media companies as they evaluate the propriety and credibility of posts are not being made by Congress, or by any other branch of the government, but rather by private companies. The First Amendment, as we interpret it, guarantees anyone the right to free speech, but it does not guarantee that you will have a platform for that speech beyond one you create for yourself.

It is an arena with which we are very familiar in the world of newspapers, where credible publications have for centuries made decisions on what will and will not be published in accordance with internal policies and guidelines. Not every political ad presented to a newspaper is accepted; not every letter to the editor meets the standards for publication. That such is the case is not a violation of anyone’s freedom of speech but rather the realities of private companies making decisions on what is acceptable and what is not based on standards they set, much as the social media giants are doing.

Social media is somewhat different. In that it is dependent on the internet and public airwaves for existence, it is governed to a greater extent than is the newspaper industry. The question becomes then, whether we want to increase the amount of governmental control over such platforms, and if so, how far we are willing to go to do so.

None of which is to say there is not bias in the process of deciding what is, and what is not, appropriate for social media platforms.There is bias with most decision-making processes involving human thought and emotions, even as it is programmed into automated, computerized functions. Whether you are talking about a television program director deciding what story to promote, a newspaper editor choosing where to send a reporter, or a social media censor evaluating the content of a post, the elimination of all bias is not possible.

The concept of “censoring” is another worthy of exploring. Censors have for years decided what programming is appropriate for television broadcasts, what ratings to apply to movies being shown in a theater, what book covers can be openly displayed on a store counter for the public to see. There are far too many examples of censorship in our society to make it seem as though the private companies operating social media platforms are doing something out of the norm.

Do any of us really want wide open media platforms devoid of any form of protections against inappropriate content? Do we want to see social media posts recruiting for terrorist organizations, encouraging suicide, flaunting sexual activity and spreading inaccurate information. Or do we want such posts to be removed, either after the complaints of viewers or at the initiative of the platform management?

And if such posts are to be removed, do we want the government to be in charge of making those decisions, or a private company?

Participation in the social media world is a purely voluntary decision. No one is forced to do so. They are like private social clubs, and as such should have the right to govern themselves by their own guidelines. When you sign up for an account, you agree to the terms of membership. When you violate those terms, you lose your rights to participate.

If a platform removes posts in a manner you feel is inappropriate, go to another platform, or start your own. If a platform refuses to remove posts you feel are inappropriate, the same options apply.

A valid argument can be made that Big Tech has gotten too powerful and too monopolistic, with only a handful of players dominating the world stage. But that is a different debate than one centered on whether social media outlets are prejudiced against specific political positions, a point of contention likely to lose some of its emotional heat when the current election cycle is over.