Should Americans Expect Free-Speech Rights on Social Media Platforms?

Censorship, Social Media

By: Ross Sempek

Admittedly, the rhetorical question posed by this blog-post may elicit polarizing answers from the reader, but it turns out the reality of the situation is a bit more complicated than a piquant query. These complications are engendered by Americans’ overall expectation to exercise their freedom of speech, protected by the First Amendment. It seems reasonable to expect one’s free-speech protections to extend from public forums to the internet as the movement between these spaces is seamless.

But the internet, and by association, social media websites, are amorphous entities that can be accessed in a variety of legal settings. Unlike analog materials, and physical spaces, this omnipresent service injects itself as a type of platform into a space regardless of its designation as a particular forum. You can tap into the ether to use these services in your home, where your expectation of privacy is at its highest. But the lack of specific consumer-data protections under current US law allows for privacy violations to abound.  With dubiously-titled “informed consent” people can purchase your location information, Facebook can track your cellphone use if you’re designated as an “independent contractor,” (just $20/mo.?!) and even the federal government can “neither confirm nor deny” that it monitors its citizens social media activity.


Well, if you have nothing to hide, then you’re good. Right?  I mean, the foundations of free speech support the freedom to receive constitutional speech. And that sounds pretty innocuous…patriotic, even! So we should expect to exercise our rights. Right? Let’s explore these conflicting concerns in the most American way possible; with a baseball game.

baseball field hitter and catcher

In the world championship series, Free Speech faces off with Social Media! *cheers* Only one team will be victorious – who will it be?

Game 1

Free speech on social media websites can exist in a blurry legal arena.  It’s perfectly fine for you, a private citizen, to tailor your own social media pages by deleting third-party content, as well as blocking others from seeing your page. However, those same freedoms do not exist if that person is a government body. As indicated by recent challenges and their ensuing court rulings, certain areas of Facebook and Twitter, like those used by government bodies, serve as public forums where free speech law trumps terms-of-use established by the businesses in question. Hey, alright! Put one up on the board for free-speech. *Sports fanfare*

Free Speech               Social Media
1                                  0        

A government gaffe cost Social Media the win on that one. The winning run was scored on a wild pitch, but the fans’ll tell you it was a passed ball.

Game 2

So the government can’t block you on their social media pages. What about the social media companies themselves? These terms-of-use that the government misused earlier also dictate what you can and can’t post. And it isn’t limited to just what is illegal.  For example, according to the Congressional Research Service document Freedom of Speech and Press: Exceptions to the First Amendment, there are some self-evident restrictions to pornography, but it is largely  legally-protected speech . However, a recent ban of this material on Tumblr stands in opposition to these supposed free speech rights. So even with heavy hitters like the Universal Right to Free Expression to challenge this, the free speech rights team doesn’t have home-field advantage anymore. Tumblr isn’t a government entity – it’s a private company. The rules change Plenty of people were upset that this happened, evidenced by some of the reactions in the link above. And while those feelings are valid, Tumblr cannot be legally compelled to serve as a platform for every ilk of constitutionally-protected speech.

Free Speech             Social Media
1                               1

A pitcher’s duel makes it one-all in the series! Social Media’s smaller field was the difference in the game – the catcher hit a frozen-rope into the left field foul pole, caroming the ball back on to the turf. Just dee-moralizing!  

Game 3

OK – a platform-provider can legally limit the speech of its users, even legal speech. But this sort of influence can be exerted by a third party, too. Advertisers played money-ball with youtube, when in 2017 certain advertisers severed their financial support for the website due to the fact that Google couldn’t guarantee that their ads wouldn’t be displayed in tandem with videos that spouted hateful ideologies.The youtube policy and safety statement now explicitly bans this sort of content in what was a precipitous reaction to the power of the purse. The number of stakeholders in every social media interaction is phenomenal, and confluence of their power is seemingly insurmountable.  

Free Speech              Social Media
1                              2

A controversial call exacerbated by an inconclusive replay left the Free Speech fans livid! Social Media has the first lead of the series in a riveting rollercoaster ride!

Game 4

In most circumstances, misinformation is legally-protected speech – you can go to jail for lying, but there’s not a blanket-ban. Imagine how impacted the judicial system would be if novelists, salespeople, or cheating spouses could be tried for their tales, tactics, or transgressions. Lying to a government body is a different story. And even law enforcement can engage in deceptive interrogation practices. But fake-news on Facebook? No dice. And even though the company’s nascent battle against yellow journalism has turned into a caricature of itself, spawning meme-ry and censoring satire, the principle remains.

Free Speech               Social Media
1                               3

It’s not looking good for Free Speech – they need a miracle!

Game 5

A grieving father recently held Instagram partly responsible for his daughter’s suicide. He believes she was influenced to do this by looking at images of self-harm on the website. In another reactive move, Instagram vowed to remove this type of imagery from its platform. While perhaps noble, this swift action censored a swath of uploads that could be cries for help. By banning the photos Instagram created a barrier to treating mental illness. This moratorium stigmatizes even further an already marginalized population. Their parent company, Facebook, also aims to prevent suicides, albeit more forcefully. They dispatch local police to intervene with what they judge to be suicide-prone users.

Free Speech                  Social Media
1                                  4

Well folks, maybe we saw it coming. With a fitting Orwellian end, Social Media reign supreme as the world champs! Just short of a sweep, but they dominated.

I love baseball as much as the next person, but maybe it’s time we play a different game. Our entitlement to privacy, civil debate and freedom of inquiry still mean something to librarians, and I hope it has a place in your heart, too. Librarians and dedicate their efforts worldwide to this ethos, beholden to their communities and its many patrons. Free speech is very American, and thanks to librarians, it’s also very global.  


Ross SempekRoss Sempek is a recent MLIS graduate as well as a volunteer for the Multnomah County Library System in the beautiful state of Oregon. As a makerspace program assistant, he facilitates a weekly gaming club for local teens. He comes from a blue-collar family that values art, literature, and an even consideration for all world-views. This informs his passion for intellectual freedom, which he considers to be the bedrock for blooming to one’s fullest potential. It defines this country’s unique freedoms and allows an unfettered fulfillment of one’s purpose in life. When he is not actively championing librarianship, he loves lounging with his cat, cycling, and doing crossword puzzles – He’s even written a handful of puzzles himself.

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