A few weeks ago, our blog focused on providing a refresher on the Bill of Rights, that is, the first 10 Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment is where we get the “Freedom of Speech.” This freedom has been invoked frequently in the days since the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, so we thought it would be prudent to review this amendment and its protections in more detail.
First, let’s read the 1st Amendment in its entirety: “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.”
There is a lot packed into this sentence, so let’s abbreviate to focus on our topic for today: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech…”
Let’s look a little closer. Who is the subject? Congress. And what can’t Congress do? Make a law that abridges freedom of speech. This is key, The Constitutional protections of freedom of speech involve potential infringements of speech by the federal government.
Here, it is important to note that private companies are not bound by the U.S. Constitution to uphold the freedom of speech. The First Amendment only protects against government suppression of speech and government censorship.
In the past week, many have protested major social media companies for banning President Trump’s accounts. Often, the people protesting this action decry it as denying the freedom of speech. However, as shown above, this freedom is meant to be a protection against the government, not private companies. Private companies are well within their rights to dictate the terms of using their platforms (i.e. their “terms and conditions”), and if those terms are violated, they can freeze or ban an account. There are many laws that influence private business practices, however, the Bill of Rights is not one of them.
At Thinking Nation, we think it is incredibly important to make this distinction. We hold the Constitution highly and believe it to be the bedrock of our democracy. With that said, we also believe that misrepresentation of our nation’s founding document can harm that very democracy. When we misuse the Constitution, especially when seeking our own benefit, we put a cloud over the intentions of our nation’s founders and weaken our own country’s foundation.
In this contentious time in American history, let’s cling to the principles outlined by our Constitution. May we not detract from their potency on one hand, and may we not make them to be more than they were meant to be on the other.