Free speech, government and social media

American Free Speech, Social Media, and Your Government

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If you are still seeing questionable news items, such as outright fake news or baseless opinion masquerading as citizen journalism, you are not alone. You may have also noticed that real news is given the “i” for information imprimatur by Facebook. When you hover over the “i,” a blurb is generated that tells you about the publication. The platform’s users must deduce that the absence of such a blurb means the publisher is not taken seriously by Facebook.

Well, of course, Facebook has said it would ideally avoid such judgments and just be a technology company. But, the reality of election campaign law in the United States and cries for transparency means that is must identify political advertisers. No problem for a tech company, right?  Wrong. For example, the New York Times recently reported that Facebook failed to label the sponsor of an attack ad in a California congressional race.


While some bemoan that Facebook became political, the reality is that public officials and their government offices use social media to communicate with constituents and voters. Many police departments also have garnered followers with useful public safety information mixed in with humorous posts.

The @realDonaldTrump account is the megaphone the president uses to bypass fact-checking to reach the masses and gin up a daily fervor. He recently lost a lawsuit over his account blocking users who express dissenting points of view from his politics. The Knight First Amendment Institute and blocked Twitter users brought the case to argue their participation in free speech had been limited. Although Twitter is a private company, the court held that the president’s account is controlled by the government and the content is government speech.

By extension, the court also found that the account constitutes a public forum and that the president’s account cannot block those with differing views from directly interacting with his tweets. The president was not alone in his efforts to stifle contradictory views. At the end of last year, ProPublica found that several governors (from both parties) and federal agencies had been blocking more than 1,200 social media accounts.

Shortly before the Trump Twitter case was decided in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the Electronic Frontier Foundation brought a related case in a federal court in Texas. EFF, on behalf of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is taking Texas A&M, a state university, to task for blocking Facebook page commenters and/or deleting posts that are critical of its animal testing program for muscular dystrophy research. A university spokesman declined to comment at the time of the lawsuit’s filing, according to the Houston Chronicle. But, a February 26 statement from the renowned veterinary school expressed dismay about critics of the MD research: “It saddens us that without full knowledge—of what we are doing, how the dogs are treated, and how close we are to an effective treatment—groups have taken a rigid position and are using slander that adversely affects the opinion of those who don’t know all of the facts.”

If the Trump Twitter opinion serves as a guide, it’s likely government accounts are going to have to adjust to taking a lot of lumps from critics, without deleting those comments or blocking users. And, that could get very messy. That said, messiness is nothing new in our democracy.

Well, what about businesses’ accounts on social media? Do they have to keep negative commenters? Doubtfully. In the U.S., the government is held to a different standard than a business when it comes to free speech. (Before we undertake this examination, I must disclaim that I neither attended law school nor stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night. In the interest of full disclosure, I do hold a journalism degree and an abiding love of the First Amendment.)

If you have not memorized the Bill of Rights, here is a crib sheet with the First Amendment:

“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.”

It’s that last phrase that sets the government apart. Just as it cannot limit free speech by citizens, by extension, it must be held accountable. Ergo, government speech, actions and decision-making must remain transparent and in the sunshine, for all to see.

But, if you are selling cupcakes (or dare I say wedding cakes?) and someone posts on your Facebook page that the cupcakes tasted terrible, feel free to delete that comment. Likewise, if your business Twitter account is being followed by Russian bots with half-naked women in the profile pictures, go ahead and block that noise. There are some social media platforms that do not give business owners much recourse aside from responding to negative reviews (Google and Yelp, for example).

Before you get carried away deleting posts from critics and blocking users, consider if any of them are expressing valid concerns. If so, respond directly, respectfully and courteously. In some cases, a perfunctory response may be appropriate. In other cases, a more robust dialogue may just be to your benefit.

Katharine Fraser, Adroit Narratives

Man with head in his hands

Twitter, Epithets and the End of Civil Discourse?

Ah, Roseanne, thank you for creating a national convulsion. I mean a delightful exercise in debate and an exhibition of the free marketplace of ideas in action, all on Twitter and Facebook. And, of course, we have cable news parroting social media commentaries on the subject while also trying to cover presidential politics.

And amazingly, all of these activities are intertwined with the president of the United States complaining about a TV network firing a star for making a racist comment about a former president’s adviser and another comedian apologizing for vile remarks about the president’s daughter. But wait, there’s more: yet another comedian getting into a Twitter spat with a CNN reporter.

This has got to be the worst reality show ever

As for the notion that Roseanne Barr’s dismissal from her eponymous show is some liberal media payback against conservatives, let’s start unpacking that by noting conservative does not equal racist. And, let’s recall how Kathy Griffin was tossed from CNN’s New Year’s Eve hosting gig for posing with an effigy of a decapitated President Trump. There are still lines people cannot cross without losing work.

If any employee of a good company walked into the office advocating presidential assassination or calling black people apes, they would be shown the door. And not because the employer wants to be politically correct. It’s because places of business maintain community standards and no one wants to be offended, scared or horrified while conducting business. Entertainers are in business too. If a media company doesn’t want them around, so be it. A business needs revenues and if advertisers balk or walk, revenues are lost.

Add to the lovely mix Samantha Bee’s comments about Ivanka Trump and the Trump administration strategy to dissuade illegal immigrants by separating them from their children upon crossing the border. Bee used a foul epithet for the female sex organ and suggested the president’s daughter flirt with her father to change his mind on policy matters. If, in response, Bee loses work because her show loses advertisers, so be it.

But, a distinction must be drawn. Griffin, who revolted many (including myself) by posing with a mockup of a bloody Trump head, piped up on Twitter today to argue with a CNN reporter that the White House press secretary should not have asserted, on behalf of the president, that Bee’s remarks are unfit for broadcast. I’ll give Griffin this: the government should not tell anyone what speech is allowed in this country. Granted, Sarah Sanders did not say Bee should be completely silenced or punished by the government. She just said the comments were unfit for broadcast. Oh, wait, Bee’s show is on cable, not broadcast over public airwaves! Nonetheless, I’ll agree with Griffin that Sanders’ remarks skirt a little too close to appearing as if the government seeks to shut down free speech. That doesn’t mean that Bee’s use of the c-word is not an affront to women or that Griffin’s assassination depiction is not insulting to our democracy (he was elected and no one should want to see a president of the United States killed).

Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech

The government cannot regulate speech in the U.S. But the marketplace can decide it doesn’t want to pay for speech it doesn’t like.

As for government’s duty to the citizens, I’m still waiting for Trump to apologize for bragging he likes to assault women by the p-word, for mocking McCain’s heroism, for a White House staffer mocking McCain’s terminal illness, for questioning a judge’s legal impartiality in a fraud case against Trump because of his Mexican heritage, for mocking a reporter’s disability, for encouraging rally attendees to menace the working press, for calling all Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers, for falsely accusing Special Counsel Mueller of trying to meddle in the midterm elections while actually investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, for twisting a call for racial justice into unpatriotic actions, and for changing his positions like a weathervane in a hurricane. He also owes us all an apology for butchering the English language.

The tone is indeed set at the top and he is, in effect, forcing all citizens to watch his reality show, in which the president lurches from one policy position to an opposing one and back to the original one; calls himself pro-law and order despite disparaging our criminal justice system (while it investigates his campaign); arbitrarily threatens or imposes tariffs on trade partners, and, each day, scorches more earth (see presidential pardons), etc. Unfortunately, that list of incompetency and antipathy is growing too.

Next blog: Will government social media accounts be forced to retain dissenting posts or other negative comments?