WiseGuy: The Author's Blog
By Richard W. Wise ©2021
Freedom of Speech is not absolute. In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes: "your freedom to act ends where my nose begins." However, while we applaud the fact that social media platforms have cut off the hate speech and plans of Donald Trump and his insurrectionist allies we have to ask ourselves, are we ready to cede control of our constitutional rights to private media corporations. The answer, I think, is no.
There is good evidence that the insurrectionists who took over our capital on December 6th, planned and communicated their plans on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Parler. So did the dissidents who overthrew Egyptian dictator, Hosni Mubarak, during the 2011 Arab Spring. The Egyptians did pretty well until the government shut down the internet. How, then, do we make the distinction, support good things and stop bad things from happening and who should have the right to make the choice? The easy answer is the courts, but given the speed of digital communication and the clanking inefficiency of our court system, that's not going to work—at least not in the short term.
"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..." (U. S. Constitution)
Some are arguing that the first amendment states only that Congress shall make no law affecting speech—Twitter, a private company, is not Congress and therefore has the right to deny anyone they choose from access to their platform. I wish it were that simple.
Freedom of speech is meaningless without the right to be heard. In 1750 the population of the original thirteen colonies was a shade over 1.5 million. Any citizen could mount a soapbox on the Boston Common, provided his voice was loud enough and be heard. Today, with a population of 330 million, much more amplification is required and social media has replaced the soapbox. Denial of access is, in a real sense, a defacto denial of the right of free speech itself.
Trump's attempted coup has focused a bright spotlight on a problem not envisioned by our founders. Thus far Twitter, Facebook and other social media companies have bobbed and weaved, claiming they should not be regulated because they are not media, just neutral platforms which allow everyone a megaphone to use to present their opinions and cannot be held responsible for those who use it.
Social media may be technically private but it serves a public function. It is a hybrid, some of both and whether we're talking insurrectionists or freedom fighters, it can be a powerful double-edged sword. As such, it cannot and should not escape regulation for much longer.