Many Americans know the First Amendment as the protector of our right to free speech. However, society changes much more quickly than laws can keep up, and this is becoming glaringly apparent in the age of social media. Just because the First Amendment grants freedom of speech in some circumstances doesn’t mean that we are all free from censure, especially on the internet. 

In actuality, the First Amendment only limits censorship by governmental actors such as local, state and federal agencies. This has brought up complicated questions in regards to private entities such as social networking sites, which have much greater control over limiting or even blocking certain speech. Sites like Facebook have enacted policies in response to public outcry after mass shootings, like the Charleston Emanuel AME Church, where the perpetrator engaged in extensive violent and hateful speech online before moving to “real life action.” 

Debates have been raging over how much censorship, if any, should be allowed by these private entities. One argument for no censorship is that such a ban prevents individuals from engaging in “ individual self fulfillment” a theory that posits that “people need and crave the ability to express themselves to become fully functioning individuals [therefore] censorship stunts personal growth and individual expansion,” according to the American Bar Association (ABA)

The ABA suggests that the Supreme Court should “limit the ‘unreasonably restrictive and oppressive conduct’ by certain powerful, private entities [such as social media companies].” Not everyone agrees with the ABA, however. An article from the Atlantic explains that “people whose posts are removed from major platforms say they are being excluded from the most important communication channels of our age.” 

On top of this, such platforms are much less accountable for their choices than elected officials or democratic governments while simultaneously being much more capable of censorship. In response to public outcries, social media companies continue to amass censorship powers that would be feared if in the hands of government: prohibiting and silencing legal speech, using pervasive surveillance, and developing algorithmic content filters that make certain things literally unsayable. 

The Atlantic article ultimately says that “We should pay close attention to those differences before urging platforms to take on greater roles as arbiters of speech and information [since] bypassing the First Amendment requires putting power in private hands … and that in turn means giving up on real democratic input, due process, Supreme Court review, or any of the other tools we use to constrain actual governments.” Others believe there is a happy medium to be found. An OpEd piece from the New York Times suggests that “we can protect unpopular speech from government interference while also admitting that unchecked speech can expose us to real risks. And we can take steps to mitigate those risks.”