A Case Study of the American Right to the Freedom of Speech

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One of our rights in the United States is freedom of speech, which is guaranteed by the First Amendment. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution, “...prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, ensuring that there is no prohibition on the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble, or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances” (U.S. Const. Amend. I).

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The case that I have identified in which the principles of free speech and censorship have been called into question, was on the social media platform Twitter. There is a video that was posted via twitter, brutally conveying the beating of a mentally disabled girl in Chicago in July 2019. The video of this 15 year old is horrible to watch, and within minutes after the incident, the video was released and it went viral. Discussions of the rights of the speaker versus the rights of the listener were called into question for this case. There are competing viewpoints to both sides.

Bystanders posted the beating of the 15-year-old and before Twitter could respond, millions of users saw the video stirring a controversy. Research by Duggan and Smith (2013) found over half of the subscribers to Twitter use this platform to obtain news, and Twitter currently has 271 million active users tweeting in more than 35 languages. When comparing this to the printed version of a newspaper, Hadley Malcom (2014) reports that USA Today prints, on average, around 1.8 million copies and 1.4 million digital copies. Since Twitter has millions of users, they constantly must navigate the social norms of completely different cultures from around the world and what may be considered hostile or offensive by one government it may not be invasive in another. This makes it hard for Twitter to attempt to censor what a speaker wants to post. Free speech applies, even in the most difficult unpleasant circumstances. Many feel the journalists that covered the this video provided the facts and attempted to help the listener gain accurate knowledge of what was happening without breaking any rules. One could argue that for the millions of tweets that are posted every day, there is a somewhat low number of tweets that may create great anxiety. Keith Loria (2014), interviewed a lawyer named Eric Chad saying, “social media sites aren’t required to take anything down and have no responsibility to protect users from potentially troubling or offensive material” (p. 1). Private entities such as Twitter ultimately have the final word when it comes to what users can and cannot post based on their terms of service (TOS). With this case of the mentally disabled 15 year old, many sources supported the video posting, standing behind the rights of the speaker.

On the other hand, many listeners may argue that Twitter removing the coverage of was a fair act because people want and deserve respect and privacy. Many listeners subscribe to the free use of Twitter; however, they feel privacy should be respected with the death of anyone’s loved one to the best of Twitter’s ability (Loria, 2014). However, the difficulty of banning the coverage totally is merely impossible and we have given Twitter a degree of trust and control over what information we can see or share. According to Lauren Williams (2014), in ThinkProgress he reported the First Amendment gives media the right to publish and it also gives us the right not to publish (p. 4). With social media sites, one does not have to subscribe and while social media has transformed news content into a rapid feed, it is almost impossible to have the option of deciding if we want to see such graphic content. What has changed for the listener is the recent movement of social media companies focusing on this type of content being available to view. What hasn’t changed is the apparent demand from some users to delete this type of content.

Social media has become a place for news to be reported in real time and like it or not, people thrive on this type of coverage. Whether it be on the television, newspapers or social media, it is admittedly by far not perfectly done in my opinion. Based on my research and personal experience, I support Twitter’s ability to choose what they want to post and freedom of speech. However, censorship and freedom of speech should not be challenged with every opportunity. I think the strong message for me is that social media sites need to be consistent with their expectations and censorship rules and they need to decide what their true role is with freedom of speech. I do appreciate the media not wanting to “offend” but on the other hand I do feel social media is a platform to present news and denying access to important news coverage is a form of censoring. Perhaps social media should perform like the television news and give the audience a disclaimer, warning them on whether or not they would like to continue due to graphic content that is about to be shown. This gives the user the right to view or not to view. We have encountered a world full of immediate posts of pictures, texts and news. Social media is forcing us to redefine the way we obtain information. In my opinion, freedom of speech should stem from standards of truthfulness and sensitivity. As published in Big Speak Speakers Bureau, Thomas Freidman was quoted, “Global platforms allow more people to plug and play, collaborate and compete, share knowledge and share work, more than anything we have ever seen in the history of this world” (p. 2).

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