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Is there too much Free Speech on Social Media?

Alexis Burns ‘19

Almost everyone these days uses some type of social media, where they can say whatever they like, whether it is the President of the United States, Donald Trump, saying he wants to go to war or the #metoo movement, where men and women share their stories of how they have been sexually abused and support one another. Social media can be used to express oneself or just for fun. Not everyone uses it the correct way though.

The First Amendment allows us to voice our opinion within reason without punishment. Social media is a great way to do that. Twitter has millions of users and anyone is able to join with a few clicks of a button. We are free to send out a 280 character tweet saying whatever we want. There comes a time, though, where it goes too far.

On any social media platform there are a few hundred bigoted, ignorant people, or someone just looking to start trouble for fun. In Yair Rosenberg’s 2017 article, Confessions of a Digital Nazi Hunter, she speaks of “internet trolls” who create fake accounts impersonating minorities such as Jewish, African-American, and Muslim people and then tweet racist statements. Even our President has posted racist and hateful statements, including one on November 25, 2014 “Sadly, because president Obama has done such a poor job as president, you won’t see another black president for generations!”

In November of 2014 The New York Times Magazine reported, that most death threats or general threats go unpunished. If a person were to go up to another human being and threaten his or her life, that person’s right to freedom of speech is normally revoked, and rightfully so.

In a case between Anthony Elonis and his ex-wife, where he was threatening her and her family’s safety on Facebook, the jury was told to make its decision based off of whose point of view they choose to see it from. The ex- husband commented on one of his ex-wife’s pictures saying how the child in the picture should be matricide for Halloween. He also said multiple times that he wished he could kill her. The man claimed that it was “how he deals with the pain over the loss of his wife.” Many people can claim they are joking or it is just a way to deal with pain as long as they do not act on it because their hate speech is protected under the First Amendment.

What Anthony Elonis posted was not illegal and there are many others who express their hate through social media. While they technically cannot get in trouble for that, it is still dangerous because we never know what is going on in someone’s life and it might push the victim to harm themselves or bigots to harm others.

The magazine also said “if the Supreme Court requires evidence of a speaker’s intent to harm in true threat-cases, it could give the police and prosecutors one more reason not to bring them.” The police cannot legally arrest someone for saying that they wish they could hurt another human being or for a threat that is not carried out. Bringing evidence to the Supreme Court of intent to harm over a social media threat is incredibly hard. There is no way to be completely positive if the person is going to carry out their threat. They could easily claim that they were kidding or it was all in good fun and like Anthony Elonis, they were just expressing themselves.

Violent social media threats create a violation of freedom of speech and protection. These instigators are getting more freedom of speech than they should and nothing is being done about it. For example, Rosenberg contacted Twitter about racist bigots and asked the company to shut their accounts down or punish them, but still Twitter refused.

More action should be taken against these bigots, whether it is having police or websites investigate more thoroughly or creating bots to find these harassers, as Yair Rosenberg mentions in The Confessions of a Digital Nazi Hunter.

Something more must be done.

About Alexis Burns

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