KU professor explains why social media giants are allowed to ban president, why capitol protests violate First Amendment

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TOPEKA, Kan. (KSNT) — The First Amendment covers quite a bit of ground.

It states, “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.”

Within a week, the First Amendment has been tested, especially when it comes to what actually is protected by the amendment after the events at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. In addition to that, technology platforms have made the decision to block President Donald Trump from using their sites.

KSNT News spoke with a University of Kansas professor, Genelle Belmas, who teaches media law, clarifying what is and isn’t allowed when it comes to the First Amendment.

Q: Why are social media companies allowed to ban people from using their sites? Is that a form of censorship?

A: “Only the government may censor,” Belmas said. “So when Twitter makes decisions to remove certain individuals from their platform, they are exercising their rights as a private company. The First Amendment doesn’t really have anything to say about that. Because the First Amendment says, ‘Congress shall make no law…’.”

Q: Do technology companies have to follow the same rules as government agencies when it comes to the first amendment?

A: “The first amendment doesn’t apply to companies,” she said. “They have the choice to take or not take anything they want. So if they choose to remove individuals from their platform because they have broken terms or service, which is something that binds us when we install pieces of software on our computer that nobody ever reads, but they should.”

A: Why is it private communications companies don’t have to follow the same rules?

Section 230 is one part of the Communications Decency Act of the big omnibus telecommunications act that was passed in 1996,” she said. “It’s only 26 words, that’s the meat of it, and it says that, ‘if you are a platform, like Twitter, Facebook. If you have a way that readers can comment on your website too, you count as one of these. You are held essentially to be not liable for third party content that people post. And you are able to engage in “Good Samaritan’ activities which means that you might decide to take off some problematic sites, or some problematic post.”

Q: So, if a social media platform was created by the government, then they don’t have the right to block free speech?

A: “If Twitter were a government organization, they could pick and choose really without as much regard to the concerns of Section 230,” Belmas said. “You have no right to post on Twitter. You have no right to post on Facebook. Those are private companies. And if they want to take away your ability to do so, that’s not taking away your right.”

Q: The First Amendment gives people the right to religion, assembly, press, petition and speech. So why were some of the protests looked at as ok, and others were not?

A: “The First Amendment doesn’t protect violence. It doesn’t protect breaking and entering,” Belmas said. “Not riots, not threats, not child pornography, not libel. Fighting words, a few other areas that I haven’t mentioned. But we don’t have absolute freedom. We have pretty good freedom, right. But, we don’t have the absolute freedom to say anything we want.”

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