Free Expression on Social Media

by Lata Nott, Executive Director, First Amendment Center
Updated by Brian Peters, Intern, First Amendment Center

The First Amendment protects individuals from government censorship. Social media platforms are private companies, and can censor what people post on their websites as they see fit. But given their growing role in public discourse, it’s important to ask ourselves–what exactly are their censorship policies? How do they compare to each other, and to the First Amendment’s protections?

What can and can’t you say in the town squares of the internet?

Mouseover or tap each social media icon for more information.

 TYPE OF SPEECH CENSORSHIP
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Hate

Hate speech is speech that offends or attacks people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, disease, or other traits.

Reddit SnapChat Twitter Facebook Instagram Tumblr Youtube
First Amendment:
The First Amendment protects hate speech from government censorship unless that speech incites or is likely to incite imminent lawless action.

Obscenity

Obscenity is famously hard to define, but in general refers to content that strongly offends the prevalent morality of the time.

Reddit Twitter SnapChat Facebook Instagram Tumblr Youtube
First Amendment:
The First Amendment protects pornography from government censorship unless it’s obscene. Whether something is obscene depends on contemporary community standards, and whether it has any literary, artistic, political, or scientific value — but nudity alone is not enough to make it obscene.

Misinformation

Misinformation is false or inaccurate information. Examples of misinformation include false rumors, insults and pranks, while examples of more deliberate disinformation include malicious content such as hoaxes, spearphishing and propaganda. Also referred to as fake news.

Reddit Tumblr Instagram Facebook SnapChat Twitter Youtube
First Amendment:
The First Amendment protects false statements of fact (although it does allow for people who make false statements of fact that damage others’ reputations to be sued for defamation).

Harassment

Harassment refers to unwanted behavior that makes someone feel degraded, humiliated or offended. We do not define it to include true threats of violence, which are banned by all of the platforms below and are not protected by the First Amendment.

Reddit SnapChat Youtube Tumblr Twitter Facebook Instagram
First Amendment:
The First Amendment does not protect true threats (serious expressions of intent to commit acts of unlawful violence) from government censorship. But some anti-bullying laws have been struck down for violating the First Amendment.

Legend

Facebook = Facebook
Instagram = Instagram
Reddit= Reddit
SnapChat = Snapchat
Tumblr = Tumblr
Twitter = Twitter
Youtube = Youtube

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