September 23, 2020

Nothing Unconstitutional About It

By Stephen Tuttle | May 11, 2019

A discussion about free speech is always a good idea. Even the president is deeply concerned. Deeply. His current angst was spawned after Facebook and Instagram (Instagram is owned by Facebook) banished several darlings of the very far right.  
The president has previously complained about alleged social media censorship and other alleged shenanigans he believes somehow disadvantage him and his followers. He says we have something in this country called free speech, then wonders why no radical left-wingers were banned and why conservatives don't get “equal time.” That he makes these claims on social media seems lost on him. 
Social media are private-sector enterprises. We use those platforms with their permission, not by right. We agree to abide by their policies and terms of use despite the fact hardly any of us have ever read them. Had we done so, we would have discovered most reserve the right to remove us should we violate those terms, which include their own forms of a speech code.
There is nothing unconstitutional about this. They aren't the government. The First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech … ” And, in fact, Congress has made no law. But the private sector can and does abridge free speech constantly and legally.
If you work for a company of any size, there is a good chance you have some kind of employee handbook dictating, among other things, behavior it considers detrimental to company business. That likely includes social media posts. The government can't stop you from saying most anything you want, but your employer can stop you from working there.
Large corporations with sizable human resources departments now routinely check social media during the hiring process. And they need not ignore your snarky posts or raunchy photos when making their decision.
The president's musings about radical left-wingers is fair enough. The obvious answer is that as offensive and ludicrous as the left can be, and despite their constant criticisms of the president, they aren't in the same league as those he now defends.
Among those given the boot by Facebook/Instagram were Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, whose venomous anti-Semitism should have been banned long ago; Milos Yiannopoulos who, among other outrages, once advocated pedophilia; and Alex Jones, who lies about murdered children and their families and every other tragedy since 9/11. 
The social media sites determined they and others were “dangerous.” Those sites have the right to do that.   
There is no such thing as “equal time.” The president is likely referring to a bygone era. There used to be something called the Fairness Doctrine. In 1949, at the dawn of television, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) promulgated the Fairness Doctrine. If you had or wanted a broadcast license, you were required to report controversial issues, including elections, in a way that was “honest, equitable and balanced.” 
But the Fairness Doctrine was repealed by the FCC in 1987, during the Reagan Administration, because, they said, it had failed in its mission to encourage the balanced discussion of controversial issues.
If such a rule existed today — and attempts have been routinely made to legislate it back into existence — most of Fox News and MSNBC could not broadcast at all. And such government intrusions run dangerously close to or well over the constitutional line. 
The president makes a better argument when he rails against censorship on college and university campuses and the way they consistently squeeze out conservative speakers and ideas. We don't just ostracize them; we try to banish words they might use. We call them “trigger words” and  provide “safe spaces” to which the offended can flee. You know, just like in the real world for which they're being prepared. 
The president could have made an additional valid censorship point had he dropped down to K-12 education; schools are still banning books.
In 2018, schools banned books discussing LGBT issues (because they might “confuse” children), books featuring same sex parents, books they believed “promoted Islam,” and a couple books about refugee children in the Middle East said to “foment terrorism,”
And, for the umpteenth year in a row, making the top 10 of books banned in schools was “To Kill A Mockingbird.” After all, it uses the N-word and contains violence. Never mind that it's an important American literary classic with about a year's worth of teachable moments.    
The president doesn't understand the realities of speech restrictions on social media and is about three decades late with his demands for equal time. He doesn't care about banning books because he's not a reader. 
But he's been right about speech issues on campus, and that's a discussion worth having. Let's start by acknowledging what the Constitution actually says. 
Surely someone at the White House already knows all this. They should probably tell the president.


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