By: Susan Allen
Twitter recently found itself on the receiving end of negative criticism from numerous sources after its attempt to censor tweets from a Republican Senate Candidate. Twitter notified Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., that it would not run her campaign video because it contained “inflammatory language.” Such language arose from Blackburn’s stance on the always controversial issue of abortion. Twitter informed Blackburn that her advertisement would be permitted as long as she removed the flagged statement. This decision proved to be contentious; not only did Twitter receive backlash from Capitol Hill, but also from fellow social media giant Facebook as well.
On Monday, October 9th, Twitter notified Blackburn that she would not be able to promote her campaign unless she edited a Tweet that featured “inflammatory language.” Twitter stated that Blackburn’s flagged content was “likely to evoke a strong negative reaction.” Nevertheless, by Tuesday the 10th, Twitter reversed its decision after reconsidering the “context of the entire message.” This about face did not come before Blackburn called on Twitter to apologize for its censorship. However, despite the conflict between the candidate and the social media giant, Twitter did not ban or suspend Blackburn’s account altogether.
This recent publicity is likely the type that Twitter would like to avoid thanks to the growing tension with its relationship with Washington. Both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees are currently probing Twitter as part of a larger investigation into Russia’s attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election results. This new issue only adds fuel to the fire, as critics in both Washington and Silicon Valley voiced their concerns about First Amendment rights. Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg supported Blackburn’s right to free speech and opined, “When you cut off speech for one person, you cut off speech for all people.” She continued on to say that social media platforms should allow people to express themselves without having their content vetted or censored. She also demonstrated how Facebook supports free speech by highlighting that the website allows political or issue advertisements to run, despite their divisive nature. Many in Washington share this opinion, including Blackburn herself, who called upon her fellow Republicans to fight for their First Amendment free speech rights. Sources in Washington have commented that if Blackburn’s video was a TV ad then it would not have received this treatment, since candidates are reportedly allowed to say essentially anything they wish in TV ads, with the exception of curse words or content censored by the Federal Communications Commission. Nevertheless, critics on the other side of this conflict have been quick to point out that Twitter has its own constitutional right to determine what type of content appears on its site. They explain that Twitter enjoys the same First Amendment rights as newspapers and other fully protected media, including the right to choose what to publish and what not to publish. It is important to note, however, that Twitter employs specific advertising policies that forbid certain types of controversial content.
This Twitter controversy and the First Amendment implications may someday lead to the creation of a federal committee that monitors social media content, similar to the Federal Communications Commission. With social media becoming such a popular method to exhibit one’s beliefs, the government may come to decide that certain standards must be in place in order to prevent the massive negative response that Twitter feared with Blackburn’s tweet. If this should happen, one could expect tremendous backlash from the public as such a committee would likely trample on some First Amendment rights. Until then, it appears that controversy will continue to exist as politicians take to social media platforms such as Twitter to voice their thoughts, beliefs, and political positions.
Student Bio: Originally from Rochester, New York, Susan is a second-year law student at Suffolk University Law School located in Boston, Massachusetts.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author alone and do not represent the views of JHTL or Suffolk University Law School.