Freedom of speech has been one of the most basic tenets on which the United States was built upon. It’s clearly declared in the First Amendment of the Constitution that Congress cannot prohibit free speech and expression. Freedom of speech has been the shining beacon that has guided our country and has defined its missions throughout history, as our government heavily considers freedom and what they define it to be when making influential decisions. In 1941 Franklin Roosevelt described the “freedom of speech and expression” as one of the four freedoms America would fight for, solidifying the freedom of speech as a core American value.
America now must define this freedom of speech once again. The Capitol Riots and the resulting Twitter ban of President Trump’s account pose a serious question on the limits and implications of this principle of freedom of speech. When Twitter permanently suspended Trump’s account on the grounds of his incitement of violence, Facebook, Snapchat, and other popular social media platforms quickly followed suit—and in response to their acts, some are accusing these corporations of infringing upon Trump’s freedom of speech. These critics insist that, regardless of the content of Trump’s tweets and the impact it had, he should still have access to a platform and the ability to relay his opinions, and people should be able to make their own decisions. According to them, private companies blocking and censoring information can create dangerous precedents if this power is unchecked.
While freedom seems to be a God-given right to do what you want, when you want, and how you want because you are free to do so in the U.S., in reality, freedom must be accompanied by many regulations for the security and welfare of society. One’s “entitlement” to freedom cannot come at the price of the safety and well-being of others. Our freedoms must, and do, coexist with certain restrictions. A recent example that highlights how limited freedoms can further help us are mask mandates. In the time of Covid-19, many anti-maskers have rallied against federal mask mandates, claiming that they are a violation of their freedom. However, an individual’s freedom to not wear a mask in public is definitely not worth potentially endangering others, which is why governments are pushing them forth despite backlash.
So when it comes to the bans that were recently implemented against President Trump, we need to ask ourselves if Trump’s actions on social media posed a serious threat, one that doesn’t fall under the protection of the first amendment. Are his words excluded from the bounds of “free speech”? I would strongly argue that yes, they are. The horrific events that happened last Wednesday were, and will continue to be, an incredibly big deal. The sheer scale of destruction, the blatant lack of respect for our government and our election processes, and the president’s response to the riots hold incredibly solemn prospects. Photos of the violence that took place show how Trump’s misleading, disrespectful, and simply untrue words directly translated into physical actions. If we relent to the voices who prioritize Trump’s freedom of speech over the safety of the American people and American democracy, we choose to normalize and accept this behavior, providing a dangerous example that allows for similar behavior in the future. We also choose to align the sacred values of our freedom of speech to the violent disruption of the very foundations of our government. We cannot allow those choices to be made simply to protect Trump’s actions. And so the banning was necessary, unavoidable, and completely justified.
Social media has played an increasingly major role in today’s social and political climate. These platforms are places where people can gain access to a variety of information, hear the thoughts and perspectives of people from diverse backgrounds, communicate, and discuss matters we care about. It’s no wonder they’ve become major forums for political discourse. At the same time, they play a pivotal role in fostering toxic environments, where the lines between freedom of speech and dangerous attempts at deception are blurry; where, without censorship, mass amounts of people can be misled and manipulated. Therefore, social media platforms must regulate their potential for great evil. They must be responsible for keeping an eye out for speech that could provoke violence. They must be responsible for blocking accounts and taking down posts that contribute nothing but baseless hate. Last but not least, they must be responsible to draw a clear line between what can be said and what cannot, and hold users accountable to those standards. And we, as users, must do the same.
Finally, with the recent social media bans, these responsibilities have been addressed and owned up to. Violence, and the roots from which it is spawned, must not be ignored; instead, it must be shone the spotlight on, and rightfully penalized. This was precisely what happened with the censorship that took place, and this is what must continue to happen, with implementations of new measures to prevent the harmful events hate speech can incite, such as warnings and fact-checkers. Online platforms should continue to keep in mind that their shoulders are heavy and that they must stand for the people, and against what threatens them.