Tag Archives: Twitter

Censorship, Free Speech, Social Media, and The First Amendment

According to the state action doctrine, only government entities can violate the First Amendment. Twitter, Facebook, etc, are not government entities. They don’t violate anyone’s constitutional rights when they take down posts or remove their accounts. That does not mean that Twitter, FB, etc, aren’t censoring speech.

Some worry that Twitter, Facebook, etc are monopolies, violating anti-trust laws and that they thus ought to be regulated as common carriers. This strikes me as pretty obviously mistaken. Not only are they competitors, but others have sought to compete with them (MeWe, Parler, etc) and nothing rules out others trying to do so in the future. Some also worry that Twitter, Facebook, etc might act in ways meant to curry favor with the Federal government and that if that is true, since its plausible that federal regulators know this and might thus signal their desires to these firms, really Twitter, Facebook, etc are agents of the state and so they can, after all, violate individual constitutional rights. This also strikes me as pretty implausible, both legally and morally. Whatever control would be present would be pretty tenuous. If it weren’t, it seems unlikely that Twitter would have closed President Trump’s account.

When Twitter bans President Trump from its platform, it prevents him from speaking to a certain audience, limiting his speech. It does not thereby successfully prevent him from speaking to everyone; he has other avenues of communication. Of course, if the government censors someone, they also will typically have other avenues of speech. Consider the Comstock Act of 1873; it made it illegal to send certain “lascivious” material through the mail. Those wishing to share (speak about) those materials with others, could still do so—for example, by walking to others and talking to them directly. More generally, any governmental act meant to silence someone will close some avenues of communication while leaving others open. The fact that a social media company only closes some avenues of communication to (i.e, only partially silences) someone it bans from its platform is no different than what government does. If the latter is censorship, so is the former. Or so it seems to me.

If I am right, “government censorship” is a specification of “censorship,” as is “parental censorship,” “school censorship,” etc. “Social media censorship” would simply be censorship by a social media company. If this is wrong, we need another term for what the other agents just named do when they limit speech. That’s fine, of course. It’s a mere conceptual matter, one we needn’t worry too much about—what we are really interested in, I think, is whether social media companies or other private agents should seek to silence anyone. Still, if this is not censorship because only speech limitation by government is censorship, then “government censorship” is redundant—and I do not think it is.

That I think social media companies sometimes engage in what is properly called “censorship” does not mean those companies do anything wrong. Free speech is valuable—and so, I think, the first amendment leaves the US more or less absolutist in forbidding government intervention in speech. But that doesn’t mean private agents can never morally limit speech. Of course they can. Of course we can. For example, I stop my son from using certain words that are not appropriate for polite society. I censor him. There are also certain speech acts I would forbid in my classroom if I had to, but thankfully don’t—they don’t ever seem to come up; that is, my students don’t use them (in the classroom, anyway). Similarly, book burning (in some circumstances) by private individuals and book banning in private schools are likely forms of censorship. They’re both legal, even if disturbing.

Some censorship is not only permissible, but expected and probably morally good—disrespectful speech in the classroom, for example, is something we do well to make unacceptable (through non-legal, social means). Is censorship by Twitter, Facebook, etc, of President Trump and his followers good? I don’t honestly know. I am conflicted. On the one hand, I generally agree that more speech is the way to counter bad speech and that airing all views is likely to leave the bad (morally and epistemically) views with fewer believers. And (on the same hand), I worry that people are too often attracted to beliefs they are told they shouldn’t have (the “taboo effect”). Certainly, letting people discuss racist and anti-Semitic views hasn’t (yet) stopped them from spreading and letting people discuss conspiracy theories about fraudulent elections—for which there is no evidence—hasn’t stopped them from spreading. On the other hand, I don’t have any significant doubt that President Trump lies and that his followers are mistaken about a number of important factors, including the supposed fraudulence of the election, and preventing the spread of those false beliefs seems worthwhile. And, I admit, I simply love that in our society government officials face limits imposed by private entities. Corporate CEOs can tell the President of the United States that he can’t use their service; this is not something one can say in Russia or China.

Conclusion: like it or not (and I am conflicted), Twitter and Facebook do not violate any constitutional rights by censoring the President and his followers. As I said previously, this is a matter of property rights. Twitter and Facebook own their platforms just as I own my home. Just as I can forbid someone from entering my home to tell me why Nazi’s were right—or anything at all that I don’t want to hear—Twitter and Facebook can forbid people from using their platforms to say thinks Twitter and Facebook do not like. Twitter and Facebook have the right to censor those using their platforms. Whether they should or not, I cannot presently say.

Section 230: Platforms and Publishers

There has been a lot said lately about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. President Trump had threatened to veto the defense budget unless it were repealed. Trump and others are upset with internet platforms Facebook and Twitter because of their censoring users—users that might propagate false claims about widespread voter fraud or foreign governments somehow hacking our voting system and users promoting false claims about COVID-19 being a hoax, for obvious examples. So what is the issue here?

Here’s the heart of the matter in §230: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”  This does not mean the provider (the platform) can’t be sued; it means they can’t be sued for information (good or bad) someone posts on their site from another source.  In short, they aren’t publishers.  That all seems good to me.  It would also seem like a simple extension of everyday thinking about private property. 

Consider: if I install a bulletin board on my property (outside my house, near where people walk), I can post what I like on that board and I can allow others to put up posts as well. Intuitively, we wouldn’t think I should be held responsible for what other people post there.  One simple reason for this is that it would be too much to expect me to monitor everything. If someone posts something on my bulletin board—which, assume, I offer my community as a way to increase communication—and I can be sued for false claims they post, I am very unlikely to install such a board in the first place. I don’t have the time or inclination to check the truth of everything posted by others. Section 230 essentially treats internet platforms just like that, though obviously much larger, with millions of posts on their “boards.” If we want them to offer their means of public communication, we shouldn’t hold them responsible for the truth (or fairness) of everything posted on their service. This is why §230 treats platforms as good Samaritans rather than as publishers.

What seems to upset people, I should note, is the removal of posts rather than the leaving of posts that are false or unfair in some way. Consider my bulletin board again. While I am not to be held responsible for things others post, I can take things down as I please. What §230 makes clear, as I read it, is that since its my bulletin board, I can remove stuff you hang even if what I remove would be constitutionally protected if on some state owned medium. I can help you post stuff I like and I can remove stuff I do not. I’m not required to do either, but (because it is my property), I can do either.  Facebook, Twitter, etc, can do the same—remove your posts or help you post—as they wish. And just as my helping you post on my board does not mean I am responsible for your posts, Facebook, Twitter, etc are not responsible for what you post there.

In short, §230 treats firms offering platforms as providing a valuable service on their property that thus should not be overly burdened. Nothing in §230, so far as I can tell, gives platforms any special privileges such that they can reasonably be seen as an extension of the state (which would mean that posts would be constitutionally protected).

The only thing I might find worrisome is if a platform knowingly lied (or knowingly forbid true posts). In knowingly forbidding true information, a platform might cause actual harm. If that can be demonstrated, I might agree that there should be legal interference. Given, though, that users are voluntary participants, this seems unlikely—you can’t claim to be harmed if you are a voluntary participant. To explain: If you come into my house after I tell you I might lie to you when inside, on my view, there should be no legal interference. Of course, in such a situation, you shouldn’t visit me. Indeed, you’d be well advised to unfriend me. Similarly, if you think the internet platform is being dishonest in the way it censors posts, you should probably leave it. At least this is a reasonable response if you’ve given it serious thought and conclude that the benefit to staying is minimal. I would suggest that staying has a clear benefit: exposure to views one doesn’t know or agree with. That can help one improve if one is open to it. But though I think we should all be open to hearing rational discourse, I don’t know that anyone is obligated to do so.