Does a Twitter ban violate First Amendment rights? A legal expert weighs in

FILE - In this Thursday, June 18, 2020 file photo, President Donald Trump looks at his phone during a roundtable with governors on the reopening of America's small businesses, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. Though stripped of his Twitter account for inciting rebellion, President Donald Trump does have alternative options of much smaller reach. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File) (Alex Brandon, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The suspension of President Donald Trump’s social media accounts has prompted some to call the move a “violation of the president’s First Amendment right to free speech.”

But legal experts say that’s a fundamental misrepresentation of the U.S. Constitution.

Everyone learned it in grade school, but it’s worth remembering what the First Amendment actually says: “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.”

The answer is actually in the very first word of the First Amendment.

These are the rules for Congress, for our government, which Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and all other social media platforms are not.

On Monday, Florida Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz responded to social media companies that restricted Trump’s online platforms.

“We cannot live in a world where Twitter’s terms of service are more important than the terms in our constitution and bill of rights,” he wrote on Twitter.

The implication being that those two documents are at odds with each other, which just isn’t accurate.

Clay Calvert is a law professor at the University of Florida and leads the Brechner First Amendment Project.

“The Constitution actually is irrelevant here in terms of the banning of public officials, including President Trump, from Twitter. And that’s because the First Amendment, the United States Constitution, only protects us from government censorship, not censorship by private entities, such as Twitter, or Facebook or other social media platforms. So he’s a little bit off in terms of the constitutional issue involved there,” Calvert said.

And U.S. laws were not the only rules that applied to President Trump.

Twitter’s terms of services allow the platform to pull content that violates its rules and it’s the same with most other major platforms, although the decision-making process isn’t available to public scrutiny like it would be in a court of law.

Twitter’s statement on Friday said “after close review of recent tweets from the @realdonaldtrump account and the context around them — specifically how they are being received and interpreted on and off Twitter — we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence.”

VIDEO: The suspension of President Donald Trump’s social media accounts has prompted some to call the move a “violation of the president’s First Amendment right to free speech.”

Now, the root issue of concern here is the private control of social media platforms which, with billions of users and pages, have become almost essential to engaging with society. Meaning, social media platforms have become less like shops and restaurants and more like the roads and bridges of the internet.

“The bigger question that might raise is is should we start to treat these larger social media platforms, which do have vast power like Facebook? And we’ve seen now with Parlor being essentially as it were right? Should we treat them differently and regulate them more closely? Have we reached that stage where we need to antitrust litigation, perhaps, and say they have such powerful platforms, they’re like near-monopolies that we should do some trust-busting and break them up,” Calvert said.

That discussion has actually been going on for a while.

In the Florida legislature, there’s a bill that’s been filed for consideration that would allow users to sue social media companies for blocking their content.

About the Author:

McLean is a reporter with WJXT, covering education and breaking news. He is a frequent contributor to the News4Jax I-team and Trust Index coverage.