Censorship is a word with an extremely negative connotation in the Western world. Associated with hostile tactics of suppression and prohibition of information as a method of control in authoritarian regimes, censorship has become unacceptable in societies with democratic values such as the United States. The term is often associated with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, a clause that guarantees free speech and is meant to protect against censorship practices.
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However, the relationship between these concepts is complex and rapidly changing in the context of the modern digital era. Censorship should be avoided generally, but there are situations where it is warranted, and the First Amendment does not legally offer protection unless these censorship measures can be traced back to the government.
First, it is important to examine the fundamental aspects of the First Amendment and the rights it guarantees. The Constitution directly states that no law or measure should be passed by the government, which restricts freedom of speech, press, or the ability of the people to petition the government and address their grievances. However, many view the extent of the First Amendment as applying to private life or entities.
Therefore, being banned or silenced on social media, fired, or having one’s political speech canceled by an opposition figure are the instances not protected by the First Amendment since they are all conducted by private entities rather than the government (Willingham). Therefore, public dissent, which often occurs in such situations leading to accusations of censorship and First Amendment violations, does not apply. It is a complicated issue whether the government mandated the First Amendment should apply to private but can be related to a similar principle. The government cannot control the manner that private entities conduct themselves in their own internal policies and affairs, otherwise, it would also be a manner of censorship.
One of the biggest debates is whether the First Amendment is applicable in the digital age and should be used to regulate speech on social media platforms such as Facebook. Due to technological and social changes, social media has become the medium where the public most often voices an opinion. Recently, platforms such as Facebook have been using their power as a private company to ban individuals considered extreme or inconsistent with their liberal values, one famous example being the speaker and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
The place that Facebook and its ownership of other social media hold by being a platform of choice for most Americans arguably controls a large segment of the public square. History demonstrates that restriction measures on expression, no matter the entity, tend to get more aggressive over the years (Johnson). Therefore, such measures, regardless of one’s opinion about Alex Jones, can make people nervous and incite talks of censorship individuals are banned based on their viewpoint. The scale of Facebook and its place as the public platform potentially warrants an examination of whether the First Amendment should apply.
However, this leads to the need to examine the modern realities of the applicability of the First Amendment. “When the framers of the U.S. Constitution drafted the First Amendment, it was costly and difficult to make a public speech, especially through mechanisms like newspapers, and relatively easy for a government to crack down on the speakers” (Graham). Meanwhile, in the modern-day, there is an abundance of information due to the availability of social platforms. The biggest challenge is now gaining attention, which certain entities have been able to mobilize to stifle truthful and accurate speech. It is a concept known as reverse censorship, a context which the First Amendment is unable to either define or protect.
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In consideration of modern realities, one aspect begs the question, whether the legislative framework should be reconsidered and revamped. It would encompass not only outlining whether the principle applies to the public domain of social media but also how it can be used to combat censorship of any kind. After all, the Constitution and its amendments were created with the intention of being flexible and adaptable to change.
Graham, David. “The Age of Reverse Censorship.” The Atlantic. 2018. Web.
Johnson, Eric. “Should the First Amendment Apply to Facebook? It’s Complicated.” Vox. 2018. Web.
Willingham, AJ. “The First Amendment Doesn’t Guarantee You the Rights You Think It Does.” CNN. 2018. Web.