Social Media and Freedom of Speech: Balancing Rights and Company Policy By Nick Chmura

December 4, 2017

An opinion article by After School Safety Team Member Nick Chmura

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.”

But do social networks have to?

Freedom of speech is a hot topic right now. In June, the Supreme court unanimously reaffirmed that there is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment. In the wake of the ruling, and fueled by well-publicized incidents like the Charleston White Nationalist march, heated debates on the topic have continued in communities and universities across the United States.

The First Amendment regulates the government, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” While government entities (including public universities) may not prohibit speech, private companies –– like social networks –– can.

ConnectSafely CEO Larry Magid explained this during a recent podcast with After School CEO Michael Callahan. “The first amendment applies to government, you (companies) don’t have an obligation to protect freedom of speech, though you may choose to,” said Magid.

In my opinion, if these networks were completely unregulated, they would be havens for bullying and harassment. Balancing keeping users safe and keeping communication open is not simple, causing every network to take a different approach to regulating communication on their network.

As a part of Facebook’s approach, they support “counterspeech” as an alternative to regulating posts. The basic idea of counterspeech is someone who responds to a hateful post by saying it’s wrong will have more impact than merely removing that post in the first place. COO Sheryl Sandberg explained, “The best remedy for hate is tolerance. Counterspeech is incredibly strong, and it takes time, energy and courage.” Still, Facebook’s policies and actions make it clear that the company is not averse to removing hateful posts.

Like other networks, Twitter discusses the importance of open communication, and is proud of its broadcasting of a “variety of users with different voices, ideas and perspectives.” But this too is only to a degree. Twitter Rules specify what language is and is not permissible, and notes that the company may respond to violations by “temporary locking and/or permanent suspension of account(s).”

After School takes a different approach. In the interview mentioned above, Magid asked Callahan whether he believed a user had a right to say something hurtful or controversial. Callahan responded, “We definitely believe you have a right to say it…but this doesn’t necessarily mean it will stay up (on After School)”

“What if I was to say, ‘Donald Trump is a lousy president’ or ‘Barack Obama was a lousy president’…Can you take that down?,” asked Magid.

“A person(user) could. From a company perspective we would want that though, to create a discussion for people to comment on, but if someone deemed that discussion out of hand, it could be reported and taken down, no problem,” responded Callahan.

This is similar to Sandberg’s counterspeech argument, with a twist. Counterspeech supporters may hope controversial posts will stay up, but on After School, users have the ultimate power to moderate themselves and determine what is and isn’t okay in their online communities.

In my opinion, it’s not clear yet what the best approach is to balancing open communication and safety online. While I am a supporter of open communication, and think it helps societies grow, there are extremely vulnerable communities (teens, LGBTQ+ and others) that connect and grow online. For me, I want them to be safe places for them to explore their identities.

In a perfect world, open communication like what is defined in the First Amendment would be ideal. However, while we’re still maturing as a society, moderation on Facebook, Twitter and After School is essential.

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