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Freedom of Speech

In the wake of last week’s seditious assault on the Capitol, and President Trump’s apparent incitement of it, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other major social media sites have blocked or canceled Trump’s access. Trump protests that his freedom of speech is being violated.

The complaint misses one basic point: the First Amendment prohibits Congress (and by extension the federal government) from violating freedom of speech. The Fourteenth Amendment has been interpreted to extend that prohibition to the states.

Social media platforms like Twitter are not part of the government, they are private entities not bound by the First Amendment. They can decide which speech to tolerate and which to suppress. Trump, or anyone else, has no right to post on Twitter or Facebook, or any other social media platform.

It is a significant problem that a few platforms like Facebook and Twitter have achieved such overwhelming dominance that they have the power to silence Trump or anyone else.

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It is nonetheless a significant problem that a few platforms like Facebook and Twitter have achieved such overwhelming dominance that they have the power to silence Trump or anyone else. It’s quite analogous to the problem posed some time ago by the overwhelming dominance of AT&T in telephone service. While for decades AT&T was regulated like any other public utility, a federal antitrust lawsuit finally forced the company’s dissolution. That’s how we now have such spinoff companies as Verizon.

So the federal government, pursuant to its power to regulate interstate commerce, has two choices. We could decide that the overwhelming dominance of platforms like Facebook is too convenient to break up. Then we would need to regulate them.

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Or we could decide that Twitter and others have an illegitimate monopoly that is restricting innovation. Then we would need to break them up.

Take your choice. But what we shouldn’t do is nothing.

John Peeler