After the Capitol was stormed on January 6th by supporters of President Trump, social media platforms took action against the 45th president, blaming him for the incident. Trump was indefinitely banned from Facebook, at least until his term ended, suspended from twitter indefinitely, and his campaign store, hosted by Shopify, was taken down, just to list a few examples. Twitter’s initial statement from their first suspension of Trump’s account best sums up the reason so many tech companies banned Trump:
“As a result of the unprecedented and ongoing violent situation in Washington, DC, we have required the removal of three @realDonaldTrump tweets that were posted earlier today for repeated and severe violations of our Civic Integrity policy.”
“This means that the account of @realDonaldTrump will be locked for 12 hours following the removal of these Tweets. If the Tweets are not removed, the account will remain locked. Future violations of the Twitter Rules, including our Civic Integrity or Violent Threats policies, will result in permanent suspension of the @realDonaldTrump account.”
Without passing judgment on whether these platforms were justified in banning Trump, a new existential threat is presented to protecting free speech in the age of the internet.
The Existing Mess of Protecting the First Amendment Online
In his 2009 article, Barry R. Schaller succinctly states the issues the First Amendment faces in the age of the internet and social media. The social media titans of Facebook and Twitter are privately held companies and can regulate what gets posted on their platforms; they do not have to bow to the First Amendment the same way the Federal and state governments must.
Can public figures, with the President of the United States being the case of first impression, be blocked from these ubiquitous speech platforms for actions stemming from outside the use of said platform?
Compounding the Issue
Regardless of Twitter’s justification for banning President Trump, these results should be concerning. The First Amendment is already in a tangled web where the internet is concerned, and Trump’s recent bans and suspensions from his social media accounts shows how few protections there actually are for barring censorship online. The previously alluded to cases that protect free speech in some malls across the United States do not neatly apply to social media platforms on the internet. Some courts have ruled that social media platforms are private spaces, despite how ubiquitous and vital they are for communicating ideas in the modern age. Trump clearly had his right to advocate his position revoked on many social media sites, resulting in a serious hinderance to his ability to speak freely. Beyond asking ourselves if and how the First Amendment should apply to social media, we need to ask ourselves how proximate our offline behavior needs to be before we begin getting punished for it online. Needless to say, these issues are not going away, and Trump’s treatment in the wake of the Capitol’s seizure shows we need a clear cut set of rules now more than ever.