It feels like once a year I have to write a column very similar to this one, but I feel it’s important enough to continue the dialogue.
After a group of people rushed the U.S. capitol last week in protest of President-Elect Joe Biden’s electoral victory, most social media companies responded by removing thousands of right-wing individuals from their sites. Obviously, the biggest one was the permanent removal of President Trump from Facebook and Twitter.
Since then, I have seen dozens of posts – many from elected officials – decrying the decision by saying banning people is violating the First Amendment.
That is 100 percent false. This is what the First Amendment says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Simply put, the First Amendment only applies to the government control. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or any other private company has no obligation to allow anyone to speak. Like it or not, those are the rules.
In fact, this newspaper has no obligation to allow anyone to speak. As a journalist who makes his living in part off First Amendment protections, I have always fought to allow free speech in almost any case. But even saying that, there are limits to what I will allow in my newspapers, our Facebook pages and on our website. Occasionally, we do receive letters to the editor or comments on our stories that I do not allow.
In doing so, I have been accused of violating the First Amendment. Again, not true. The First Amendment only applies to the government. Government is not allowed to stifle free speech. Private companies, like The World and like Facebook and Twitter, can make their own rules. In fact, we are required to make our own rules. If private companies allow people to say things that are slanderous or dangerous, we can be held liable. So yes, we do limit a small amount of speech on things we control.
Having said that, I will always lean toward allowing speech that can easily be found offensive. The First Amendment, in fact most of the U.S. Constitution, exists to protect the minority. The First Amendment exists to protect the most offensive speech that exists.
It’s easy to allow someone to say things that are popular. It’s easy to allow speech that isn’t offensive. The Constitution kicks in when speech crosses from popular to offensive. When Westboro Baptist Church protests funerals, that speech is offensive, but it is legal. The words they use are intended to incite anger, but when standing on public sidewalks or public roads, there is little that can be done to limit them.
Because of the First Amendment, the government has no right to limit even the most offensive speech. But private companies do. So, no, Facebook and Twitter and others are not violating the U.S. Constitution by deciding who can and who cannot use their sites. Ultimately, if they go too far, it will impact their business and their bottom line. That’s a risk every private business takes when deciding who and who not to serve.
At The World and every other paper in Country Media, our goal is to allow as much speech as possible. We allow people to say things we don’t agree with. We allow letters and comments that are not always popular. But we also reserve the right to say “no” if we think something goes too far. That’s the case with our stories, our letters and even our advertisements.
My personal policy has always been pretty simple. No letters or stories can attack private individuals or private businesses. If someone chooses to be in the public sector by running for elected office, they become mostly fair game. We have allowed and we will allow letters that question decisions made by presidents, county commissioners, mayors and council members. Those individuals chose to be in the public light.
A small business owner, an appointed government official and others in the private sector deserve a little more protection so we have and we will limit what can be said about them.
I will always fight to protect the First Amendment and the right for people to speak freely. I understand in doing so, much of that speech might be offensive and something I wholeheartedly disagree with. Offensive speech is free speech, but there are limits.