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Shouting ‘Fire’ in a movie theater

By Emily Rosenberg

Asst. Opinions Editor

On Jan. 7, one day after the Capitol siege, Democrats and leftists alike rejoiced as former President Donald Trump’s Twitter account was permanently suspended from the platform after years of abusive and questionable content, while Republicans and conservatives made claims of censorship and violations of the First Amendment.

Trump’s account was banned after his failure to denounce Capitol rioters along with a tweet stating he would skip the Inauguration. Twitter stated that Trump’s tweet about the Inauguration implied election fraud and that it might incite further violence.

Following that week, U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene was suspended for 12 hours for posting a conspiracy-based thread, suggesting election fraud in Georgia.

I, along with many others, found Twitter’s motivation for censoring Greene and Trump justified during a time when the United States was under a domestic terrorist attack. It can be debated that had Trump had a platform to encourage his supporters, Inauguration Day might have gone differently. However, I’m unsure that announcing one’s wishes not to attend an Inauguration is inciting violence.

Donald Trump should have been tried and removed by Congress long before the Capitol riots. His baseless and harmful claims of election fraud threatened American Democracy and it was ultimately Congress’ responsibility to hold Trump accountable to his oath before blood was shed.

Instead, a big tech company had to remove him for them, and we all had to pay for their lazy politics in response. Trump’s years of inflammatory tweeting and the trialless suspensions of the past month set a precedent: Americans are OK with big tech Companies limiting free speech if the speech being banned doesn’t align with their values.

If we put our trust in the hands of big tech companies to tear down misinformation without guidelines

and ignore the First Amendment, what happens when leadership falls into the hands of wrong-intentioned people? Imagine tomorrow the CFO of Twitter turned Alt-Right Nazi and shut down AOC’s account for using fiery and critical language. The line between what is true and false will no longer be set by citizens, but rather by corporate business people with motives.

Democrats were quick to say that because Twitter and other social media platforms are private companies with their own guidelines, they have no obligation to uphold the First Amendment.

Yet as communication becomes arguably entirely virtual, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms need to be considered as valid playing grounds for activism and open speech – and government regulation. Had Trump not been the President of the United States, his account could have been suspended a long time ago. While his tweets were annoying and divisive, few brought legal issues to the table. I wonder how many accounts are suspended every day for posting similar content?

You can’t scream “Fire” in a movie theatre, but you can accidentally tell your friend in private that Barack Obama was never president.

Is Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeting baseless conspiracies theories to thousands of followers the online equivalent of screaming “Fire” in a movie theater? If she were giving a verbal speech at a rally in Georgia, no one would arrest her.

Is someone in the corner of the internet sharing misinformation the equivalent of telling your friend that Barack Obama was never president? Both have the opportunity to encourage someone to lead a false truth. The former can get you marked as a potential threat, whereas government protection would ensure this mistake passed.

Despite the desire to regulate communication, Americans and other tech users need the freedom to interpret or contest language without a third party, or one day it will come back to haunt us. It must be up to the reader to determine what they should follow unless the speaker has sat in front of a judge.

There need to be clearer guidelines as to how social media companies can block and monitor speech. Social media needs to be governed as a public entity, as it has been viewed as one for the past several years.

It’s time to enforce formal legislation acknowledging the responsibility of these companies to uphold the First Amendment.

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