Opinion: First Amendment Laws Should Apply To Social Media, Too


Jadyn Arzola

There is a difference between violating freedom of press and simply censoring inappropriate material.

Amelia Stanley, Editor-In-Chief

Censorship is the suppression, prevention, prohibition or changing of speech, writing, public communication and other information. On a federal level, there are laws that forbid censorship in America. However, private groups, companies and corporations do not have to abide by the same laws as the government regarding censorship due to the lack of governmental or state action within the company. The first amendment does in fact protect American citizens from government censorship, although there are extremely rare exceptions in which prior restraint may be allowed, which is most commonly seen in cases relating to national security. When it comes to social media censorship though, it gets tricky. Technically, social media platforms are typically private companies as they are not government owned,  meaning social media censorship is within the discretion of the company. Consequently, American citizens are not protected from social media censorship.

First amendment laws should apply to social media, too. 

Considering how wide-spread social media is, it doesn’t make much sense that the most convenient way of staying up to date with the world is allowed to be censored. The first amendment allows freedom of speech within reason. Freedom of speech does not include the right to incite imminent lawless action (Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444) or to make or distribute obscene material (Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476). This includes hate speech, defamation, obscenity, child pornography (CP), incitement to violence as well as true threats of violence and more. The first amendment only protects Americans’ speech from government censorship, so as long as it doesn’t include anything in the categories listed above, the government can not censor it. However, social media companies can and do. Due to the exponential growth of social media in the last 10 years, the need for more rules and regulations has grown as well. It’s undeniable that social media needs to be censored, but only to a certain extent. Social media censorship began to protect copyrighted information, control computer crime/cybercrime, keep children safe on the internet, etc.

Social media censorship has completely strayed from its original purpose. It is common for people who post their political opinions or their opinions on controversial topics on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Tiktok, etc to get shadowbanned.”

Shadowbanning is when a user is blocked from social media or online forums, without their knowledge. Users are still able to post, but their content will be blocked from main pages and can sometimes only be seen directly from their account. Furthermore, their posts may show up on their side, but will not show up even directly from their account. Shadowbanned users are under the impression that they can engage with other users’ posts and post their own content, but other users can not see their engagement or posts. Hence the ‘against their knowledge’ because users are not notified that they have been shadowbanned and are under the impression that they are using social media as usual since it is not made apparent that they have been blocked. Although when it comes to politics, controversial topics and social media, it is understandable that propaganda is shielded from the internet as well as hoaxes and fear mongering claims.

There are many loopholes that enable government officials or state actors (a person acting on behalf of a governmental body) to partake in social media censorship. If a state actor has a personal social media account, they may block and restrict as they please. Campaign pages that focus on the election or reelection of state officials can also censor. On the other hand, though, there are restrictions that apply to state actors who have public accounts that include references to their official government position, links to government websites, phone numbers, etc, or if the account enables individuals to access or discuss government information. Accounts that are not private or campaign pages become a space for public speech and at that point, first amendment rights apply. It is unconstitutional for a government official to create one of these pages, and then restrict or block people with differing viewpoints. Standards or rules that may apply to these accounts must be clearly stated within the account, they must be applied consistently and not block, restrict or censor those with opposing viewpoints or unpopular opinions. Ultimately, this means that the only time users are protected under their first amendment rights, is if an official social media page representing a government official or organization censors them directly. It does not keep everyone safe from censorship from the social media company itself. 

There are several pros and cons of social media censorship. On one end, censorship is essential for the protection of those who may use social media. For instance, protection from graphic, violent, obscene, dangerous and explicit material is critical for the internet to be at least somewhat safe. But there is a difference between violating freedom of press and simply censoring inappropriate material. The line was crossed years ago. It is most commonly seen during times of uproar in the United States and during elections. Everyone should have the right to speak freely about their own viewpoints, opinions and controversies regardless of whether it is an unpopular opinion or not. Censorship is vital, but an abuse of it will result in a violation of freedom. The internet with no filters can lead users to seeing or finding information regarding illicit drugs, sexual assault and sex trafficking, CP, hate speech, details about illegal activities and more. Not only does the internet allow users to view these topics, but it is even possible to participate in them as well. Sites like Craigslist could give access to users to purchase drugs and participate in human trafficking, and many other dangerous and inappropriate activities. As a result of this, censorship is incredibly and indescribably important in today’s world. Individuals are protected from viewing or participating in such heinous activities because of censorship. Furthermore, censorship protects national security, limits access to certain information and the viewing of CP, sexual assault, etc, lowers the risk of identity theft and many cyber threats, eliminates fake news and protects privacy.

Social media censorship is not a Republican or Democratic issue, it’s a human issue in the simplest form.”

Censorship is not completely useless, but because of the abuse of it, it is hard to find a median. First amendment laws should absolutely apply to social media in the way that it does in real life. For example, in real life, there are still things individuals can not say and do, so applying those same rights to social media is appropriate if they are already practiced in everyday life. Even though censorship protects mainly the internet, there has to be balance because social media censorship specifically can also do harm. It decreases the beneficial flow of information since everything has to be deemed misinformation or factual. It makes it harder for smaller businesses to gain traction if they can not freely promote themselves and their products. In addition to that too, it costs money to filter everything posted on social media. A solution to this would be lessening the strictness of censorship of users strictly based on their viewpoints and opinions. Overall though, aside from the advantages and disadvantages of social media censorship, the main issue is the violation of freedom of speech. 

Social media censorship is not a Republican or Democratic issue, it’s a human issue in the simplest form. Not allowing others to speak freely or express themselves solely because of the disagreement from others is a complete violation of first amendment rights. Even though first amendment rights do not currently apply to social media, there is no doubt that they should. Social media is one of the biggest sources for news and information, so the need for freedom and diversity on these platforms is essential. Censorship is important, but can not be abused. It is crucial to protect everyone on the internet, but once it overpowers everyone, it is no longer useful, instead it turns into an extreme.