In 2017 now-retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy noted in an opinion on a First Amendment case before the Court that the impact of social media in the cyber age was revolutionary. Indeed, Justice Kennedy went further to note it was one of the most important places to exchange ideas and likened it to a public square or park. The case was Packingham v. North Carolina and it reflected Justice Kennedy’s position that the public forum doctrine should evolve with the times, and not leave new forums of debate to remain unprotected.
The Legal Battleground
The question now is where does this leave the future of free speech in the context of social media. As communication evolves so do standards of private platforms, attempts at censorship by government actors, and the rise of extremist speech – all happening in the world of digital media.
Government blocking users: Government officials removing, or even blocking, critical comments online has become more and more prevalent. Another example of this is the blocking of speakers using critical language on Twitter feeds or comment pages on government websites. These actions violate the principles found in the landmark 1964 First Amendment case, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.
Private censorship of speech: Much of social media’s censorship, however, is not initiated by the government but rather by private entities – specifically, the social media companies themselves. These platforms monitor content that violates their own terms-of-service agreements which, in turn, are reacted to by outcries of censorship. Recent examples include a controversial radio show host being banned from Facebook, Apple, and Youtube for engaging in hate speech.
Policing extremist content: Private entities, unlike the government, are not subject to First Amendment constraints. Accordingly, their obligation to regulate private expression that calls for violence or advocates hate is unknown. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects hate speech, unless it crosses into narrow unprotected categories of speech. These include incitement to imminent lawlessness, true threats, or fighting words.
As can be seen, the age of digital media continues to evolve. Not just by the platforms that are available, but by the public’s use of this platform, which is becoming more global and more polarized as issues are easily debated by millions online. The question is how quickly the law will catch up to the digital age and how, exactly, it should approach these important concerns.