Freedom of Speech: Breaking down the First Amendment online after the Capitol riots

Freedom of Speech: Breaking down the First Amendment online after the Capitol riots

NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) – In Monday’s News4 viewer poll, 51.2 percent of people who voted, support social media platforms banning President Trump after last week’s Capitol riots.

Since last Wednesday, a number of social media companies have suspended the president’s accounts, and some have argued it’s a freedom of speech or censorship issue.

Ken Paulson is the Director of the Free Speech Center at MTSU and he argues that the First Amendment is only for the government, as a business can make its own decision.

“The first words of the first amendment are ‘Congress shall make no law, Congress shall make no law.’ Which means government shall make no laws,” said Paulson.

He adds that, “no city government, no state government, no federal government can limit your freedom of speech in America. But the dynamics change when you’re alleging your speech has been cut off by private company. You know it doesn’t say Twitter shall make no rules.”

Paulson also said that while you can be critical of it and take your business elsewhere on free social media sites, you can’t look at the suspensions as censorship either. For example, he said think about it like libraries banning books. That’s censorship because it’s done by the government.

“Situations in which there is censorship by a private business, isn’t really censorship, it’s a business decision. I know that doesn’t comfort anyone who feels like they can’t say what they want to say but social media, they are not a public utility,” Paulson explained.

Outside of just President Trump’s accounts, some companies are taking aim at Parler, a social networking site favored by conservatives. He says the main goal should be figuring out how we keep a free flow of information so all voices are heard.

“They end up banning people on Facebook and Twitter because they violated the standards, they then go to Parler. Parler says its fine but their partners or other companies say no wait a second, we need to do the right thing and we can’t have inflammatory speech on the site of our partner. And so, Amazon cuts off Parler and Apple won’t put the app on the store.”

While speech is still free online if you’re following the community guidelines set by the social media platform you’re using, Paulson spoke about Section 230 and its role to keep free speech. He said it protects media companies from getting sued while letting anyone post.

“Here’s the key to understanding Section 230. What it says is your company can’t be sued for something somebody posts on your site. So when they talk about shutting down 230, they’re talking about shutting down the American people because if you take 230 away, no social media company will be able to let you post freely without checking it out in advance because they’ll get sued. Section 230 is what keeps internet free,” he said.

As for another protection in the First Amendment, the right of the people to peaceably assemble, Paulson said the Capitol riots don’t mean people should be afraid of protests in the future.

“The incident in Washington stopped being a protest when that first person went through the gates and began to try and enter the Capitol. That becomes mob action, that’s not protected by the First Amendment. So let’s not be fearful or panicked about peaceful assemble.”