Country looks to first amendment following capitol riot, misinformation spreads about free speech
Following the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot, former President Donald Trump was banned from various social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, resulting in discussion and misunderstanding surrounding the First Amendment; The social media comments from Trump, and many of his supporters, were blamed for instigating the riot.
In light of the violent events that occurred in the Capitol, many looked to the First Amendment to better understand rights related to free speech on social media. While the First Amendment protects the freedoms of speech and expression, religion, petition and assembly, its protection does not extend over private companies, including social media.
“[Recently], we’ve seen a big controversy come up with Twitter kicking Trump off of its platform,” Student Press Law Center Senior Legal Counsel Mike Hiestand said. “A lot of people were screaming [it was a] First Amendment violation… but because Twitter is a private company, there is no First Amendment violation that would arise there. I think that students have misunderstandings about where the First Amendment lines are drawn, but everybody does.”
Some believe that banning Trump’s social media, regardless of there being no First Amendment violation, was wrong. According to a Feb. 17 poll of 131 students, 42 percent of students do not agree with social media platforms choosing to remove him.
“Personally, I don’t really like that Trump was banned because I don’t really like anybody being banned,” junior Jonathan Scurtis said. “Although, legally, [the First Amendment] doesn’t [extend] to private companies, the founders of this country never assumed the internet would exist. I’m sure that if they were alive, they definitely say that it’s ridiculous some people are silenced… Inciting violence is definitely not acceptable, but completely silencing people is a very, very slippery slope, and I don’t like that direction that we’re headed in.”
Along with discussions surrounding the legality of social media bans, many are looking to ethics to understand the impacts they might have on the future.
“Ethics is really important here because we’re gonna need these corporate [social media] leaders to be ethical,” Ethics teacher Bryan Cupp said. “In a way, they’re going to have to decide if [they] should allow this kind of speech or not and what the limit is. It’s also incumbent upon us to quit being lazy and quit valuing convenience and just rely on social media to give us the truth. Ethical responsibility is far more demanding and widespread, now, than ever before.”
With increased discussion surrounding freedom of speech, many have found that misunderstanding surrounding the First Amendment is common. After learning about the First Amendment in Journalism I, freshman Olivia Hohmann found that many of her peers did not fully understand the limits of the First Amendment.
“[What’s] making us more powerful, as a generation, is the fact that we’re allowing one another to be heard,” Hohmann said. “That’s why we should learn about [the First Amendment] in school. Oftentimes, it is important to hear you can make an impact through what you write and what you share in the world.”
Heather Cernoch, the English teacher and adviser to the school literary magazine, Itinerary, worked on several magazines and newspapers before becoming a teacher. Cernoch has also noticed misunderstanding with the First Amendment, not just at school, but around the country.
“I’ve witnessed misunderstandings in the world, whether it be on social media, on the news or just in my observations of humankind,” Cernoch said. “A lot of people want to quote amendments as a way to protect their own interests and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, unless they are misinterpreting that amendment. The First Amendment was designed to protect us from the federal government.”
As private companies, private schools are not subject to the First Amendment, like public schools.
“In a private school, we are run in a way where there are people in charge of protecting students,” Cernoch said. “They have a right to protect them in ways that they feel are appropriate… All the publications have prior review, including Itinerary. That being said, it’s important for students to have a voice in all three publications, as long as it isn’t harmful to the student body or faculty and staff in any way.”
Cupp hopes that conversations surrounding the First Amendment and social media will lead the country to ask larger questions about what they hope freedom of speech should look like.
“This idea of being aware and being exposed to these sort of foundational principles of rights, government structure and protection in our country needs to kick in,” Cupp said. “It needs to happen and needs to continually be reaffirmed. We need to really stop to pause, to talk about freedom of speech and freedom of movement… Can we truthfully say we would like it to be unlimited? Is that viable?”
Similarly, Hiestand urges students to, if they are passionate about freedom of speech, to pay attention to current events surrounding it and how it applies to their own lives.
“[The First Amendment] is not something that’s carved in stone, and it is not something that automatically protects itself,” Hiestand said. “We are seeing a lot of talk about cutting back on some of the First Amendment protection… Realize that if this is something that you feel is important, you want to stay aware… Weigh in if you think that something is not what you would agree with, something you want to change. Realize that we all are responsible for protecting the rights that we have right now.”