In Part 1 of the series Constitution in Crisis,
IUP Department of Political Science faculty members David Chambers and Gwen Torges discussed the ways in which a sitting US president could be removed from
office. In this second installment, Torges talks about social media and the First Amendment and how those things relate to recent events.
Yes, but there are some exceptions to the First Amendment, such as inciting violent unlawful actions. Speech that incites imminent, violent unlawful action is not protected. But the unlawful action being called for must be very serious,
and the speech has to be the direct cause of the action.
No. The First Amendment says Congress will not impede your freedom of speech. It’s always meant that the government can’t take away your speech or punish you for your speech. Twitter is simply a company,
not a government entity. Legally, he has not been denied his First Amendment rights. Here’s an example that I teach in my classes: Let’s say the Pennsylvania legislature decided that there’s too much violence in video games, so it passed a law that
you can’t buy violent video games until you’re 21. That would be a First Amendment issue. But if the CEO of Walmart woke up tomorrow and said that Walmart will no longer sell violent video games, there is no First Amendment question. Twitter, like
Walmart, is just a private entity, and it can make its own business decisions.
It’s part of the Communications Decency Act of 1988. Today, traditional publishers can be sued if they print something that’s libelous, meaning you’re using untrue statements meant to harm someone’s character in a way that impacts their
ability to make money. In the 1980s, they passed a law that says internet providers and platforms are not like traditional publishers. They made a distinction between someone who creates content or who picks the content it publishes versus a platform,
which simply amplifies what another person says. The law said both internet service providers and platforms were protected, i.e., they can’t be sued for what a third party says on their platform. Trump has been wanting to get rid of Section 230, because
he thinks companies are biased and taking down things that don’t support their own values and that their values are always anti-conservative. He thinks if they repealed Section 230, there would be more conservative stuff on these platforms, but research
shows it would actually be the opposite, because companies would protect themselves by not allowing anything that could get them sued. These platforms would decide they’re not in the free speech business anymore and shut down the opportunity for people
to get their views amplified.
If it were the government suppressing it, absolutely. But this is just a particular publisher saying they don’t want to support this guy anymore. If the government were to come in and say that Simon & Schuster has to publish
Hawley’s book because they previously said they were going to, that would be a First Amendment violation, because the First Amendment also protects your right not to be forced to convey a message that you don’t want to convey. But I’m sure book contracts
are written in a way that they have the right to revoke the deal if they want to.
Note: This is the second story in the series Constitution in Crisis, about constitutional topics currently in the news. The series’ third installment, focused on sedition, will be published Tuesday.