Mukhi: Questioning if the First Amendment applies to social media

On its face, the answer to the question of whether or not you should police social media content from a standpoint of morality or appropriateness is simple: Do it. Users signed the terms and conditions of social media, so why shouldn’t they be bound to a certain level of conduct? If social media wasn’t as accessible and widespread, I’d agree. However, we’re now getting to the point where free speech protections should apply to social media.

Let’s talk for a moment about freedom of speech. It’s a hallmark of the United States of America. Loosely defined, it means that what you say cannot get you arrested. There are, of course, exceptions, including slander (actively damaging someone’s reputation by making false statements), libel (printed slander), “fighting words” (language with the goal of inciting violence) and speech that endangers the life or safety of others around you (e.g. shouting “fire” in a packed movie theater when there’s no fire).

Hate speech is an interesting case. Hate speech is illegal only when it’s considered fighting words. Expressing an unpopular opinion is, of course, not grounds for arrest. In short, it depends on the severity of the speech’s potential effects. As an example, in Snyder v. Phelps in 2011, the Supreme Court overturned a ruling that awarded Albert Snyder, who identifies as homosexual, $5 million after Westboro Baptist Church protested his son Matthew Snyder’s funeral with homophobic signs. In effect, the Supreme Court has ruled that the Westboro Baptist Church is allowed to protest using signs many find offensive because they are not inciting violence through their signs.

The other controversial topic when it comes to free speech is obscenity. Social media companies’ terms and conditions screen graphic or obscene content as a matter of principle and procedure. This makes sense in a broad context. However, when taken in the context of a social movement like #FreeTheNipple, material that many would not consider obscene in a public space is censored on, say, Instagram or Facebook. Thus, a clash arises between the terms and conditions and the protections of free speech.

Broadly, social media companies’ terms and conditions prohibit hate speech and explicit content to foster a more accepting community of users. But many contend that social media sites are public forums. With this consideration, can these terms and conditions still apply, or would the company be limiting free speech in a public place?

Some say Voltaire said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” He didn’t actually say that, but the sentiment stands. It is not my intent to support a group whose opinions I find repulsive. However, I will respect their right to voice that opinion within consideration of the law. This applies to social media in that many platforms have evolved into basically another forum for public gathering. It doesn’t sit right with me that content can be policed on these forums since they’re being used more and more as official channels for communication (looking at you, @POTUS) for governments, organizations and startups. Everyone has a voice, and to censor that seems wrong to me.

I will restate that I truly believe that free speech must be protected in all forums. Policing for content prohibited by the courts or lawmakers is acceptable, but adding an additional moral code on top of that is not. Although a slippery slope argument can be made that allowing prejudice to appear online affects everyone negatively, precedent that protects free speech is tantamount.

Zubair Mukhi is a first-year student who is planning to study computer science. He writes opinion pieces bi-weekly and is probably going to declare his major … sooner or later. He’s planning to crew for Rough Rider Productions’ “Dusk” project. He’s stressed about finals, so isn’t doing anything new for this blurb. He is, however, learning to play the guitar. He managed to get all of his classes on the first try, too. A version of this article was submitted as an essay for the class FSSY 183: E-Literature: New Media Narrative.