What is Free Speech on Social Media?

In 1791, when our forefathers were laying out the Bill of Rights they couldn’t begin to imagine the United States that exists today. They couldn’t provide instructions for the multitude of inventions that have graced our lives. With each new invention, therefore, we have had to do our best to adapt these rights and regulations to the changing times. It’s a process that takes time and is constantly evolving so, though it may not seem new anymore, social media is one of those inventions still up for debate.

Exactly what our rights are when utilizing the various social media platforms we have access to is an evolving process. The resignation of Twitter’s best-known free speech advocate alongside its IPO has raised some questions about the platform’s future. Will the platform heralded for its free speech potential and role in the Arab Spring start bending to business concerns and become more regulated? (Twitter has already acknowledged protocol for withholding some tweets in some countries.) Or will it continue to be the platform of anything goes that we see today?

Meanwhile the relationship between Facebook and free speech is still being decided in court. Just Wednesday, a federal appellate court ruled that liking a political candidate’s Facebook page is equivalent to a “digital yard sign” and should be protected as free speech. The case, Bland v. Roberts, was decided in favor of the plaintiffs who argued that they were not reappointed to their jobs simply because they had supported the loosing candidate on Facebook.

So what is the role of free speech in social media? We live in a world where it isn’t uncommon to be fired for Facebook activity deemed inappropriate by your employer (such as the teacher who was fired after a picture of her with alcohol on a summer trip to Europe was spotted by a parent). If a Facebook “like” is protected, why isn’t a Facebook photo? And can we expect to twitter to continue to protect controversial tweets of citizens when they have powerful governments and businesses pressuring for removal? The protection of free speech on social media isn’t truly a protected right and it will be a long time, I imagine, before what social media content is protected free speech and what is not is set.


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