Digital Impacts on Freedom of Speech

Digital Impacts on Freedom of Speech

This blog post was written by our SGS Legal Intern, Abigale Brohard (and only slightly edited by our writing crew).

The Constitution of the United States offers guidance to individuals in their use of speech, both written and spoken present in the First Amendment Free Speech Clause. The backbone of the First Amendment is the protection offered to individuals from government entities constraining or compelling their usage of speech. Even though the Supreme Court has interpreted the Free Speech Clause over time, there are certain categories of speech that are not safeguarded by the law. Some of these categories include fraudulent speech, child pornography, obscenity and speech that is used to further the commission of a crime.

The arrival of the internet and social media forums have complicated the traditional idea of the First Amendment. Social media forums are considered private companies and are therefore authorized to set their own rules for what types of content are allowed by users. These regulations are typically found under the platform’s community guidelines, these outline best practices for users when it comes to the sensitive subject matter. All of the major social media agencies begin their community conduct by following the Free Speech Clause which does not protect speech that is fraudulent in nature, such as impersonations, false advertising, violations of trademarks and copyrights for businesses. Online chat that furthers crimes, such as the buying and selling of illegal goods, posts depicting pornography or obscene materials and supporting terroristic speech and organizations are also prohibited when it comes to free speech. The laws defined in the First Amendment may act as a precedent, however, it is not uncommon for large-scale corporations to choose to further their individual speech prohibitions.

Facebook, for example, does not allow users to engage in hate speech, harassment, threats and intimidation. When violations occur on Facebook, the community guidelines are enforced by blocking the content, unpublishing the specific pages, or removing the user’s account completely. Instagram, which is run by Facebook, functions in a similar way. The differences between the two are shown through the enforcement of content. Instagram removes violating content immediately, and will even go as far as disabling the account for future use, and involving law enforcement if the violation is serious enough. With a younger crowd, the types of material that are considered unacceptable are geared towards the upcoming generations with regulations against self-harm, mental health disorders and suicide which is not specifically noted on its the parent site, Facebook. Instagram was the first to enact a ban on these topics. 

Like platforms Facebook and Instagram, Twitter follows the outline of the First Amendment. However that is only the beginning, Twitter expands past the Free Speech Clause by also prohibiting harassment, abuse and any content relating to glorifying mental health disorders, self-harm or suicide, all of which are newly specified regulations. Twitter also screens content that may not specifically violate the community guidelines or as Twitter refers to them their rules and policies, but can still be considered sensitive to the average person. The community guidelines are enforced on multiple levels, depending on the frequency and type of violation occurring. Enforcement can happen at the “tweet-level,” which can include making content less visible on the timeline; at the “direct-message level,” where a reported user is blocked from communicating with the reporting user if or until the reporting user initiates conversation again; and at the “account-level,” which can include placing the account on read-only, or permanent suspension of the account or the user if the violation is ruled egregious enough. 

Snapchat, being slightly different than the rest of these platforms, has regulations catered to the type of issues it's users, who are mostly underaged. Extending past the First Amendment are prohibitions against harassment, bullying, sexually explicit content and buying and selling of illegal contraband. Snapchat enforces their community guidelines by removing offending content, terminating the account, or getting law enforcement involved for egregious violations. This app continues to be a hub for illegal activity due to the idea that Snapchat is temporary.  The concept is false. It may only be advertised in the fine print but Snapchat backlogs all of the user’s data, making it available for download through the front or back end of the communication software. Some of this stored information includes snap and chat history of sent and received messages.

Known as the front page of the internet, Reddit is structured a bit differently than the forums mentioned previously. With a combination of overall community guidelines posed under their content policy, as well as letting each sub-community creator set their own rules. Reddit follows the First Amendment prohibitions by prohibiting illegal content, nonconsensual pornography (revenge porn), suggestive/sexual content involving minors, threats, impersonations and the posting of private information in a public forum. Taking a step beyond the Free Speech Clause, Reddit also bans harassment, bullying, hacking, and vote manipulation. The guidelines are imposed in a seven-step method, ranging from asking the user to “knock it off” to outlawing a community entirely if there is a severe pattern of transgressions. 

The First Amendment is still the main authority for speech in any public forum, such as a park or a sidewalk, but with the invention of the Internet, and the rise of social media to communicate and interact with others, it is relevant to recall that social media forums are not designated as public forums. As private companies, they are allowed to regulate speech in the way they deem fit, even if it extends past the regulations in the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause.