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Issue 1

September 27th, 2019

Freedom of speech trumped by limits

THURS. | 01-28-21 | OPINION

     As a student journalist — and especially as the Opinion Editor — I have reaped the benefits of the right to free speech. Thus, my general view is in favor of protecting free speech and opposing censorship by the government, with very few exceptions. However, the First Amendment right to free speech does not equate to the freedom from consequences. 

     I have wanted to write about this topic for quite a while, but the timing never seemed right — until now. On Wednesday, Jan. 6, in light of the Capitol raid, both Twitter and Facebook temporarily banned President Donald Trump from using their platforms for 12 and 24 hours, respectively, and they would revisit the issue in the following days. Syracuse University communications professor Jennifer Grygiel, who specializes in social media, told PBS that “We didn’t just see a breach at the Capitol. Social media platforms have been [legally] breached by the president repeatedly.” Grygiel went as far to claim that the inaction of social media companies to prevent Trump’s propaganda is partially responsible for the Capitol raid. While that is its own discussion, the Capitol raid certainly provoked social media companies to crack down.

freedom of speech not freedom of consequ

Graphic by Lexi Karaivanova

     In the days after the Capitol raid, platforms like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Reddit and Snapchat moved to indefinitely ban Trump’s presence until further notice. Trump was banned from these platforms for violating site policies by inciting violence, promoting hate and spreading misinformation. Looking back to the end of 2020, though, social media companies like Twitter were simply flagging misinformation in Trump’s posts — ones like “We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election” — but still allowing him to use their social media platforms. In regards to Twitter, this was because of a public-interest exception policy, in which Twitter could choose to keep violative tweets by elected officials available if the public-interest value outweighed any potential harm. Public-interest in this context refers to anything that “directly contributes to understanding or discussion of a matter of public concern.” 

     With the Capitol raid being closely related to Trump’s spread of misinformation regarding the election results, it became evident that simply flagging his content as misinformation was not enough. The harm done at the Capitol was the point at which Trump’s posts could no longer be justified as an exception, hence his accounts being permanently suspended.

     Despite many of the social media platforms explaining their reasoning for banning Trump, many Trump supporters and conservative influencers (like Candace Owens) are asserting that this was censorship and legal action needs to be taken. Before I get any further, it is important to note that there are many ways to define censorship, but for the purpose of this article I am using the American Library Association’s definition: “The removal of material from open access by government authority."

     Companies like Twitter and Facebook are privately owned and operated, and have no affiliation with the government. As users of their platforms, we agree to follow their rules and community guidelines in exchange for access. Anytime you sign up or make a social media account, there are those little, pesky boxes that must be checked: the terms-of-service, as well as the privacy policy. Now, I will admit I have never read the terms-of-service before making a social media account, but that is my own shortcoming. Regardless of whether or not you have read the terms, checking those boxes has the weight of signing a legally binding contract

     As a general rule of thumb, if someone breaks a clause in a contract, there are repercussions. That same logic extends to Trump and his misuse of social media to cause an insurrection and misinform the public. Trump facing the consequences of breaking social media guidelines and spewing irresponsible speech is not censorship — it’s legal accountability finally occuring. 

     For example, Twitter has a civic integrity policy that all users must follow. The policy states “You may not use Twitter’s services for the purpose of manipulating or interfering in elections or other civic processes.” One of the ways to violate this policy is by posting “misleading claims about the results or outcome of a civic process which calls for or could lead to interference with the implementation of the results of the process.”  

     It is safe to say Trump’s spread of misinformation in multiple posts (which were unfortunately left up under the aforementioned public-interest exception) encouraged his supporters to storm the Capitol. In the raid of the Capitol, there was definitive interference with the certification of Electoral Votes (the implementation of the results). Thus, Trump violated Twitter’s civic integrity policy in the most literal way possible. Permanent suspension, however, does not occur unless a user has racked up five or more civic integrity violations. When I could still scroll through Trump’s account, practically every other tweet was flagged as misinformation, so he definitely surpassed five violations. The permanent suspension of Trump from social media was inevitable; it was simply a matter of when Trump could no longer be protected by the public-interest exception. 

     Now, let's say it had actually been a government agency preventing Trump from posting on social media or speaking in public — there are reasons to censor at least some of what Trump has posted and uttered. Many Supreme Court cases have established legal limits to free speech, but the one that is most relevant to Trump is Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire. This Supreme Court ruling established that fighting words are not protected under the First Amendment. By definition, fighting words are those that “by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace… [and] any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.” 

     In Trump’s case, he has tweeted morally ambiguous and threatening things regarding the Black Lives Matter protests. The best example of this is “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” which glorified further violence over peace and order. Then, with the recent Capitol raid, Trump encouraged his supporters to “take back our country” with strength during a rally he hosted the morning of the Capitol raid. The latter of these did “incite an immediate breach of peace” with his supporters storming the Capitol to “take back the country.” His tweets and his speeches have included fighting words, which are not protected under the First Amendment, making censorship a valid constitutional consequence. 

      While the government has and did not censor Trump, that does not change that no one in this country has unlimited free speech. Even if free speech limitations are not constantly legally enforced by the government, the consequences of irresponsible speech will manifest in other ways. In Trump’s case, he faced the consequences by having his social media accounts suspended by private social media companies. The restrictive actions taken by companies like Twitter and Facebook were not only legal — as he violated their terms-of-service — but necessary. Furthermore, Trump’s usage of free speech has time and time again pushed the constitutional limits, meaning it was assured he would one day face the consequences in some shape or form. 

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