Free Speech and Social Media

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” – The First Amendment of the US Constitution.

For those residing in the United States, the first amendment is a benchmark right. Its prominence in the bill of rights reflects its importance, as it covers two of the most principal assurances for both freedom of and freedom from religion and to the free expression of speech without fear of molestation. For expats, it’s an entirely different thing.

I’ll leave the discussion of the religion aspect of the amendment for another time, as there has been a growing conversation about the freedom of speech part.

Freedom of speech and Social Media Companies…

There is a vast misunderstanding of what the first amendment is concerned with when referring to freedom of speech, as well as who and what it applies to. Particularly on social networks such as Facebook and YouTube. Facebook has recently adopted a policy that regulates the information it allows on its platform based on its accuracy according to an accepted paradigm of fact-checking sources. YouTube has adopted a policy that regulates the dissemination of medical information regarding Covid-19 based on information provided by the World Health Organization.

People are losing their minds over this, and those who reside in the United States, or who are expats living in foreign countries are claiming that their first amendment rights to free speech are being abrogated. They are claiming that its not fair that their thoughts and opinions are being squashed under the oppressive feet of social media giants, and are suggesting all manner of protests, petitions, and other venues to force these social media networks to allow them their voice.

It doesn’t work that way. Not even close. First of all, the first amendment to the United States Constitution only addresses what the United States Government can do, and only in certain circumstances. I will not bore you with one of my lengthily lectures on US constitutional law, but suffice to say, the first amendment constraints do not apply to private businesses. Companies like Facebook and YouTube are private entities and have every right to regulate what they will and will not allow on their platforms.

Just as a private company can tell you how to dress at the office (as long as it doesn’t infringe on your civil rights), what time you have to report to work, how long you can take for lunch, what material you can hand out to others, etc., etc. Some companies have Human Resources manuals regulating employee behavior that are as thick as a dictionary, and if you get fired for violating the legally approved and non-discriminatory company rules, that’s on you. You are not being oppressed. You are not being treated unfairly. You break the company rules, you get fired. Period. End of story.

Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and all the rest have terms of service that you are obligated to agree to when you create your accounts, and in those terms of service are specific details about the content you share, as well as the agreement to abide by any future changes to their terms of service. So, when you break their rules and get silenced by the network, they have done nothing illegal. They have not squashed your right to free speech because they are not the United States government.

Freedom of speech and social media administrators…

During this time of the Coronavirus pandemic, many nations throughout the world have enacted some level of movement restrictions and other quarantine rules. Some are lax, others are severe. Most are somewhere in between. Almost nobody is enjoying them, and many people have an opinion about them.

Of course you are free to express your dissatisfaction with these restrictions on your favorite social network. Social media outlets have not deemed your expression of what pisses you off personally to be in violation of their terms of service, and I seriously doubt it will ever be.

There are no shortage of opinions, points of view, ideologies, world views, conspiracy theories, arm-chair expert advice, and all manner of hypotheses out there of why things are the way they are, who controls what, and what is happening behind the scenes of almost everything.

On your personal social media account, you are free to post whatever you want, as long as it falls within the constraints of the terms of service set by the network. The one you agreed to when you created your account. You can choose who you want to see your content. You can choose if anyone can comment. You can delete comments. You can ban or block people from your page. You are in control of it, and if someone doesn’t like your rules, they can go pound sand. It’s not a democracy. It’s your page. Your rules. You’re the boss.

I think you know where this about to go…

There are tens of thousands of groups and pages on social media, particularly Facebook. These pages were all created by someone as a place where they can foster communication about a topic or topics for those who share common ideas, or to foster discussion about a certain topic or topics. Whether these pages or groups are administrated by a single person or a group of admins, they all have rules that must be agreed upon in order to maintain privileges of membership.

If you violate these rules, you are subject to sanctions ranging from having your post removed and given a warning, or being banned completely from the group.

Your first amendment rights are not being violated. As I already explained, your first amendment rights as outlined in the United States Constitution do not come into play on social networks. Private companies. Remember? As for censorship, yes, you are being censored. But the administrators have the same right to censor you as you have to censor people on your personal page. No laws are being broken. Behave, or leave. That’s how it goes.

Final thoughts…

If you are an expat, please be aware of all the laws in the country you live in. Don’t assume that the laws from where you used to live in the United States or the protections afforded by the United States Constitution apply to the country you live in, because they don’t.

You may not have the right to assemble and protest as you see being done in the United States. There may be a limit to the level of criticism you can speak out about towards the government on a public platform. There may be a lack of separation of church and state. There may be zero tolerance for drunk driving. You may be regularly asked to show your papers at police checkpoints. The list goes on and on, but if you choose to live in these countries, especially as a legal resident, I am confident that somewhere in the process of obtaining your residency visa you agreed to abide by the laws of the country or risk being sanctioned and/or deported.

The inevitable endless conversation consisting of hypothetical “what ifs” that are surely to come, please understand that, generally speaking, your rights as a United States Citizen are trumped by the laws of the nation you are in.

2 thoughts on “Free Speech and Social Media”

  1. Well written my friend. Having now lived in two countries as an expat I am always amazed when someone thinks they live under the laws of their home country and not the laws of their residence. In Panama I have the rights of a legal resident granted to me by the Panamanian government. When I travel to any country where I am not a citizen or resident – I have only the rights of a tourist. In all countries where you find yourself you must abide by the laws of that country. Panama does not grant us total freedom of speech. It has very distinct rules on what you may and may not opine. And even if social media allows you to state your opinion, you could still find yourself in trouble with the authorities. Please be respectful.

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