Free Speech: 1st Amendment doesn’t apply to Twitter, Facebook

Published 6:30 am Saturday, January 16, 2021

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The Free Press, Mankato, Minn.

While fervent followers of President Donald Trump screamed foul and free speech when Twitter, Facebook and other social media banned the president, they realize the 1st Amendment doesn’t apply to these private businesses.

Only the government grants free speech rights through the Constitution. The 1st Amendment has no more power to grant anyone a Twitter handle than the 2nd Amendment requires a gun company to sell you a gun.

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The 1st and 2nd Amendments specify instead, that with a few exceptions, anyone can speak their mind and any law-abiding citizens can buy a gun. It guarantees those freedoms so government cannot take away your right to speak, but that doesn’t include compelling a private company to provide you with speaking “tools” like a Twitter or Facebook account.

The 1st Amendment does guarantee many variations of free speech. Under the 1st Amendment the government, for example, could not prevent you from setting up a soap box on a street corner and speaking your mind. It could not prevent you from distributing flyers or speaking at a public forum in a public place. The government cannot stop you from marching in a parade and carrying a sign.

The 1st Amendment even protects symbolic speech like burning a flag or kneeling while the National Anthem is played. And the 1st Amendment has been invoked in recent years to protect “political speech” in the form of campaign contributions. Limits on contributions were ruled unconstitutional under the Citizens United case because the campaign donations constituted “political speech.”

But when it comes to private companies like a newspaper or television station or social media platforms, the sovereignty of the stockholders rules. Investors in Twitter cannot be compelled to provide their service to everyone. It simply doesn’t work that way.

If you think this is unfair, we can point to people to blame.

Some 35 years ago, private company broadcasters were required under the federal “fairness doctrine” to provide “equal time” for opposing political viewpoints. But you know happened? Free market Republicans like President Ronald Reagan and his cohorts did away with the fairness doctrine, figuring the market would determine who gets political speech and air time.

So we got what we asked for. Smaller government, but no more fairness.

If President Trump wants to use Twitter for his commentary and communication to his fans, he would be well advised to do something he says he’s good at: Make a deal with Twitter.

But the 1st Amendment cannot be invoked here. It doesn’t apply.