Does the First Amendment Apply to the Internet?
Originally published on April 6, 2018
In recent years, the First Amendment has been a hotly debated topic. Not only have the arguments been waged online and in person, but it even has been the source of physical conflict. In places like the UC Berkeley, Middlebury College, and in Charlottesville Virginia, violent clashes between the most extreme elements of our political landscape have erupted. In the case of Charlottesville, Heather Heyer who was one of the protesters that day, lost her life amidst the chaos. Based on these events, it has become quite clear that turmoil is a strong possibility for those who organize or protest said events. As a result of this, an increasing amount of political activists and commentators have dropped their megaphones and opted for their keyboards as a method for expressing their views to the public. While most of them have always had an online presence, this presence has been greatly amplified in the past one or two years. This is not simply an assumption—this is backed up by statistics. NYC Antifa’s (Anti-Fascists) twitter page has seen its follower count jump from ~4000 in early 2017 to ~22,000 by March 2018. On the other hand, the Southern Poverty Law Center recorded that the number of hate groups in the US have increased from 892 in early 2015 to 954 in March 2018. In the age of global communication, the machinations of online politics has been gaining popularity among different beliefs and interest groups.
This trend has not only been noticed by the SPLC, however. Online platforms such as Youtube, Twitter, and Facebook have taken to strengthening their rules on which speech is allowed on their websites, and have begun to crack down on extremists within their midst. And while this largely targets those with hateful and vitriolic views, other people with no ties to violent extremists have been affected as well. People such as Lauren Southern, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Pewdiepie (Felix Kjellberg) have been periodically banned for seemingly vague reasons. This has angered commentators on both the left and right, saying that this violates their freedom of expression under the First Amendment. But others have sided with Silicon Valley on this issue, saying that these companies reserve the right to ban whomever they wish to. But who’s in the right?
So far in the 21st century, the question of online freedom of speech has not yet been answered. With the internet and social media being relatively new phenomenons of the 20th century, there hasn’t been much precedent set on what companies may or may not do when it comes to free speech. There has even been a debate whether or not websites like Twitter can be considered truly public forums. Twitter is a private entity, and like any other website it currently has the right to do what it wants within the rules it sets in its user agreement. Yet, many would argue that the precedent has been set simply by the fact that Twitter is now a mainstream medium of communication. The internet should be viewed, and generally is viewed, as an extension to conventional means of communication— like a public square. As long as what is being said online falls within the laws of the United States, it should in turn be protected to the extent our offline speech is protected.
In 1980, the US Supreme Court came to a verdict in the Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins case— a case that can be related to the issues we’re having today in regard to free speech on the internet. This dispute arose when several high school students were distributing political flyers and pamphlets at the Pruneyard shopping center in Campbell, California. The students were kicked off of the property and eventually sued the shopping center for violating their First Amendment rights, as they contended that the center was a public forum. The California Supreme Court ruled in favor of the students, and declared that;
“individuals may peacefully exercise their right to free speech in parts of private shopping centers regularly held open to the public, subject to reasonable regulations adopted by the shopping centers” (Wikipedia).
While the rule only pertains to California and not the internet (or even the entire country), it must be stated that the First Amendment must apply to the internet, and that it is only a matter of time until Twitter and other platforms will be forced to abide by it.
Right now, the future for this debate seems to have reached a crossroads. The world-wide web is not even thirty years old, and it truly takes time to gain an unbiased perspective on what it really is. Social media, being the phenomenon of the 21st century, is still up for debate as to whether or not it is a public forum. But one this is for sure: a consensus on this issue must come soon. Because the debate about free speech brings a magnitude of opinions to the hearts of Americans, only a decisive stance of the Supreme Court will settle the issue of our freedom of speech online.
“Hate Map.” Southern Poverty Law Center. Accessed March 2, 2018. https://www.splcenter.org/hate-map. “Mapping Hate: The Rise of Hate Groups in the US | USA | Al Jazeera.” Accessed March 2, 2018. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2017/02/mapping-hate-rise-hate-groups-170222085001012.html. Marantz, Andrew. “The Fight Over Free Speech Online.” The New Yorker, August 21, 2017. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/08/28/the-fight-over-free-speech-online. “Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins.” Wikipedia, January 31, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Pruneyard_Shopping_Center_v._Robins&oldid=823267982. Sommer, Will. “Twitter Crackdown Sparks Free Speech Concerns.” Text. TheHill, November 17, 2017. http://thehill.com/policy/technology/360806-twitter-crackdown-sparks-free-speech-concerns.