Background and information:
What does “free speech” mean?
The First Amendment to the Constitution states that the government can’t punish citizens for what they say. You can stand on a street corner and yell whatever you like, you can have your own website, you can comment or post online, and law enforcement will never show up at your door simply because of what you say.
Now, there are exceptions – you can’t say things which cause concrete harm to people. You can’t:
- Urge people into violence.
- Lie about someone in a way that damages their reputation.
(This is called defamation. It’s why Dominion is suing media companies.)
- Endanger national security, or interfere with someone’s right to a fair trial.
Pro-tip: Hate speech is protected. You can say or post racist/ sexist/ ethnic slurs, you can have rallies devoted to railing against whoever you like. You just can’t physically hurt anyone, or urge others to hurt them.
So why is social media different?
- Social media companies are private, not government. When you use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc., you are signing up as a member of a private club. The First Amendment doesn’t apply.
- As private companies, social media has the right to “refuse service.” Just like restaurants can deny someone a table if they wander in shirtless, barefoot or both. The platforms can set their own rules, for the most part*. Facebook can delete someone’s profile because they break the rules.
But isn’t kicking someone off a platform silencing them? What happened to everyone having a voice?
- Private companies set their own community standards and guidelines. When you sign up to use their service you agree to those terms. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit (and even MySpace–remember them?) and others have always had rules around violence, pornography and other illegal or offensive content. Now they’ve added some kinds of disinformation to the List of Stuff That’ll Get You Kicked Out.
- Not being able to say something online does not mean you no longer have a voice. People are still free to write books, go on news programs and make speeches, televised or otherwise. You can say whatever you want. You don’t have a right to have others publish or promote it. The government can’t shut down news outlets or platforms for publishing offensive content.
TL; DR: When you check the “join” box on Twitter, you agree to follow their rules. They can kick you off if you break them. They are not the government so the First Amendment does not apply.
*Private businesses can’t discriminate against people based on their gender, religion, ethnicity, etc