Law experts: 1st Amendment doesn't protect president's place on social media

January 13, 2021
In The News

Outcries by free-speech advocates objecting to the banning of President Donald Trump's Twitter account, and similar actions taken by Facebook, Amazon and Google, show a misunderstanding of the First Amendment of the Constitution, law experts said on Monday.

The decisions that social media companies have made in the last week are not limited by the First Amendment, said Scott Meinke, professor and chair, Bucknell department of political science.

The First Amendment is about what the government can't do, he said.

"The free speech clause prevents the government from restricting free expression," Meinke explained. "It does not guarantee individuals access to privately run platforms for speech. And it does not shield individuals from negative private-sector consequences that might follow from their expression." 

Agreeing with Meinke is Stanley Brand, distinguished fellow in law and government, Penn State University. "The First Amendment is part of the Bill of Rights protection against governmental limitations on free speech," he said.

Twitter, and the other social media platforms are commercial businesses, Brand said, "and they are entitled to run their businesses as they see fit. There is certainly no Constitutional right that anyone has for access."

That doesn't eliminate the controversy over whether that is a good or bad idea, Brand noted. "And when these things occur that puts pressure on the legal structure to look for ways, for remedies. But it's not possible given the Supreme Court's application of the First Amendment."

What this all has stoked, Brand said, "is an examination of big tech media on a broader basis. That is, do they have too much power and control of the market? There have already been moves in Congress from both sides of the aisle under the rubric of anti-trust laws, to look at whether big tech has too much monopoly power in the marketplace."

When people realize that they will run into a brick wall under the First Amendment, Brand said, "they will immediately go to the antitrust field and claim the companies are acting in an anti-competitive way." 

The power of big tech

As a private company, said U.S. Congressman Fred Keller, R-12, Kreamer, "Twitter has the authority to decide who it provides service to. However, in making that determination, Twitter must apply its regulatory standards evenly to all users, which it does not appear to be doing."

It is absurd that Twitter suspended President Trump’s account, Keller said, "but not the account of Iranian Ayatollah Khamenei, the head of the world’s leading state sponsor of terror. In deplatforming the President of the United States, Big Tech is setting a dangerous precedent and must be held accountable.” 

Khamenei is the supreme leader of Iran.

“To deny the communications airwaves based upon a political opinion is a page out of George Orwell’s 1984," added U.S. Congressman Dan Meuser, R-9, Dallas. "Even the ACLU said it should concern everyone when unchecked power removes the voice of individuals.

"To bring the country together, we need more dialogue and a free expression of ideas, not less," Meuser said. "These left-wing actions do nothing but further divide America."

It is time to have some respect for all Americans, Meuser said.

"It was obvious in the last weeks of the campaign that many in the media completely ignored or shut down any reference to the Hunter Biden story," he said. "If people can’t see this bias, that major outlets have given preferential treatment to one party over another, then they aren’t looking hard enough.”