First Five Newsletter: August 15, 2019

First Five
Online censorship protections, social media controversies, federal employee union lawsuit and more.

First Five Column

Lata Nott talks about the potential executive order that would give the Federal Communications Commission the rights to oversee and protect Americans from online censorship, sparking controversy over whether it is constitutional and whether large social media companies are truly biased against conservatives. Read the column. A plain text version is available here.

News

The largest federal employee union is suing the federal government over guidance issued to federal employees last year warning against the use of terms like “resistance” or “#resist” in statements regarding President Donald Trump. The complaint alleges that this violates federal employees’ First Amendment rights and has a chilling effect on their speech. First Amendment protection for federal employee speech is also at issue in a lawsuit filed last week by former FBI Special Agent Peter Trzok, who accused the Justice Department of improperly firing him for his political views.

Technology

Criticism from Republicans caused Twitter to reverse an earlier decision to freeze the campaign account of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for tweeting out a video showing several protesters shouting violent threats against McConnell outside his home. Twitter’s rules ban users from posting content containing violence or threats of violence, but after reviewing the case the company determined that the tweet was intended to highlight the threats for public discussion and made an exception.

Law

A federal district court ruled that public middle school officials in Talladega County, Alabama, did not violate the First Amendment when they punished a student for writing “Trump 2016” on his homeroom teacher’s whiteboard. The court emphasized that the punishment did not relate to any particular political viewpoint, since at the time of the 2016 election the school implemented a new rule forbidding any discussion of the election during school except for history classes, due to repeated reports of disruption.

Scholarship

An article from Professor Cass R. Sunstein posits that there should be a presumption that false statements of fact are protected by the First Amendment — but that the government should be able to overcome that presumption by demonstrating that allowing those falsehoods will cause serious harm. This would allow the government to regulate certain deep fakes and doctored videos.

Commentary

In The New York Times, Charlie Warzel argues that the recent proliferation of conspiracy theories about the death of Jeffrey Epstein demonstrates that social media platforms are a breeding ground for false information. Warzel describes these theories as, “[A] grim testament to our deeply poisoned information ecosystem — one that’s built for speed and designed to reward the most incendiary impulses of its worst actors. It has ushered in a parallel reality unrooted in fact and helped to push conspiratorial thinking into the cultural mainstream. And with each news cycle, the system grows more efficient, entrenching its opposing camps. The poison spreads.”


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