The presidents feud with Twitter once again brings into sharp focus the First Amendments role in a functioning democracy.
Most of us understand the core principles enshrined in the First Amendment. But beyond the granular details of which freedoms are protected, the First Amendment provides a framework of responsibility for self-rule.
Were free to express ourselves without interference from the government because debate over matters of public concern is ultimately what shapes government. There can be no self-determination without a free exchange of ideas, including criticism of the government when it fails to live within the guardrails established by our Constitution.
But the nexus between free speech and government constraint often seems misconstrued as a right to be heard. For example, President Donald Trump bristled at Twitter adding fact checks to two of his recent tweets. The president seems to want to tell his fellow Americans whatever he wants without anybody questioning the veracity of his statements. But thats not freedom of speech as defined by the First Amendment.
Claiming tech giants silence conservative voices, Trump tweeted early Wednesday, We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen. Later he tweeted without elaboration, Big Action to follow.
Setting aside for a moment that the president cant unilaterally regulate or close the companies, which would require action by Congress or the Federal Communications Commission, the president seems to have some misconceptions about how the First Amendment works.
The First Amendment protects us from state action to restrict expression. Thats it. Twitter is not a government agency. As a private company, its free to decide whether the tweets published on its platform conform to policies relating to user content. Theres no First Amendment right to use Twitter or have a Facebook page or have a letter to the editor published in this newspaper.
Social media companies, newspapers and private corporations have free speech rights of their own under the First Amendment. So, while the president or any American has the right to make false statements, private entities are under no obligation to publish them uncensored.
In fact, the current tension between the president and Twitter is a good example of the First Amendment in service to democracy. Trump seems to want to create a culture of blind loyalty to the presidency, free of detractors or criticism the very circumstance the Framers of the Constitution sought to avoid when they crafted the language of the First Amendment.
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.
The Framers sought a vigorous debate around policy issues on the theory (articulated best by John Stuart Mill) that through debate, the truth will rise to the top to be seen by all. Thats exactly what we are getting in this exchange between Trump and Twitter.
Free speech is messy, and it gives a platform to viewpoints with which we may disagree or even find abhorrent, but it works.
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