Essay On Freedom Of Speech On Social Networking Sites

Freedom of speech is one of our rights in the United States, and it is guaranteed by the First Amendment. So it is hard to believe that something like social media that a majority of us use every day, could be the exception to the rule that we can say what we want to say without fear of backlash. In general, there are exceptions that prevent hate speech, defamation, and threats. Some of these aren’t legal, just frowned upon by the society at large, while others can get someone in trouble. Social media sites allow for the spread of all types of speech, from spoken word pieces on sites like YouTube, to shorter phrases said in 140 characters on Twitter. The publication of negative speech has some positive and negative consequences. We’ve seen them play out in the last few years with events in Ferguson, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and every major election.

It is difficult, however, to choose which pieces of speech are worthy of protection from action and which can be used against someone in legal proceedings. Not everything said on social media can be taken at face value. What one person deems as offensive and disturbing may incite a different emotion in another person. Striking a balance between unfiltered free speech, political correctness, and censorship is difficult. Censoring what is allowed on social media may seem like it goes against our Constitutional Rights, but allowing a free-for-all on speech can lead to threats, bullying, and hate speech.

Social Media’s Impact

Speech is not, nor has it ever been, a completely good vs. evil situation. There is so much more behind a string of text than just the literal meaning of the words. This is what makes it so difficult to decide who and what has a right to be on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Some countries, like North Korea, Iran, China, Pakistan, and Turkey, have completely blocked their citizens’ access to social media sites as a way to ward off the problem. They operate under the theory that if you take away the cause, you won’t have to worry about it.

Many websites and apps do have “report” features so that a user can alert the webmasters that something has gone wrong. This begs the question, if someone says something terrible on social media, and it is reported but nothing happens, who is responsible for the fall out? It’s an increasingly important topic across the world; this isn’t just limited to the United States.

City of Ontario, California, et al v. Quon, et al

In 2009, the Supreme Court of California heard a case that discussed the rights to free speech in text messaging between employees. Employees of the City of Ontario, California filed a claim in district court against the police department, city, chief of police, and an internal affairs officer. They believed that their Fourth Amendment rights were violated when their text messages on city-issued pagers were reviewed. The city did not have a text-messaging policy; however, it did have a general “Computer Usage, Internet, and E-mail” policy. Those employees felt as if that particular section did not cover their pagers. The court held that the city employees had a right to privacy in their text messages because there was no specific language about text messaging in the city’s policy.

This, along with several other cases about Cloud privacy has prompted many to ask the question: are Supreme Court justices too out of the loop to fully understand the severity of the problem? Most–though admittedly not all–Justices don’t interact with social media to a great extent. Perhaps one or two may have a Twitter account, but those are often controlled by members of their team. President Obama, who is largely considered more modern with technology, is the first sitting President to have a Twitter account, but there are questions about just who actually runs it.

 Anthony Elonis v. United States

This case concerns a Pennsylvania man, Anthony Elonis, and his post of violence-filled rap lyrics aimed toward his ex-wife. He didn’t use his own name, but rather the pseudonym Tone Dougie. His rap suggested that he should use his wife’s “head on a stick” in his Halloween costume. He used images that haunt the public mind, saying that he was going to terrorize a school as “Hell hath no fury like a crazy man in a kindergarten class.” Some of the other lyrics were extremely troubling:

There’s one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you. I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts. Hurry up and die, bitch, so I can bust this nut all over your corpse from atop your shallow grave. I used to be a nice guy but then you became a slut.

He also rapped about killing federal agents. Tara Elonis, his ex-wife, felt threatened by the song. The court had to judge “whether the threatening speaker intended to harm anyone or whether the listener was genuinely afraid of being harmed.” Nancy Leong pointed out in the Huffington Post that, “because the Internet filters out voice and demeanor cues, online statements provide less information about the seriousness of the statement, and are thus more likely to be reasonably interpreted as threats.“

Elonis didn’t seem to be too upset at first, posting on Facebook: “Did you know that it’s illegal for me to say I want to kill my wife? It’s illegal. It’s indirect criminal contempt … I also found out it’s incredibly illegal, extremely illegal, to go on Facebook and say something like the best place to fire a mortar launcher at her house would be the cornfield behind it …”

The case is ongoing and it has incited intense emotions from both sides of the fence.

The Good

What are the benefits of having freedom of expression on social media? Surely, it is a way for some people to vent their anger without feeling self-conscious, nervous, or upset without resorting to violent actions. Everyone has a right to say what they think. We’ll never know, thankfully, if Elonis would have followed through on the threats in his rap.

Retweets, liking, or even posting your own status can be as effective as screaming at the top of your lungs at a protest. Lately, Facebook has been full of posts that educated everyone on topics relating to racism and the plight of African Americans in modern day America. There are always a few feminist pieces floating around. LGBTQ statuses, articles, and debate appear often, as well. Looking into the comments of these pieces, it is easy to see a cross section of what people believe about the topic. After all, the best way to argue for something is to know why people are arguing against it.

Social media has also become a home to those people who post positive things about topics from body-positive Instagram campaigns to equal media representation groups on Tumblr.

The Bad

To quote Uncle Ben from Spiderman: With great power, comes great responsibility. Unfortunately, many people do not understand their responsibility to fellow man. People who don’t believe in the status quo (or those who believe in the previous status quo that is now shifting to another) can stir up some pretty harsh feelings. People have the right to believe whatever they want, but these more extreme views on politics, racism, sexism, and homosexuality can start verbal sparring matches that help no one.

People have been using social media to post threats that haven’t been taken seriously for years. Stricter online controls would help alert the authorities in some cases, and even protect the innocent. Social media can be used for internet bullying, which in some cases is worse than the traditional verbal bullying. Online gossiping and social media platforms allow the bullying to continually exist–a problem for both the bully and the bullied.


Social media is one of the best inventions of the last century. It allows us to stay in contact with people we would have left behind, and it allows us to preserve our memories in a time capsule. However, it can also make or break a person depending on how someone reacts. Truthfully, the problem isn’t a freedom of speech issue, but rather one of morality. Can we take morals and apply them to the virtual world?



Supreme Court: City of Ontario, California, et al v. Quon et al

Constitution: First Amendment

Constitution: Fourth Amendment


Slate: Are Facebook Threats Real?

Huffington Post: Constitutional Rights in the Digital Age

The New York Times: Do Online Death Threats Count as Free Speech?

Salon: The Supreme Court’s baffling tech illiteracy is becoming a problem

Business Insider: This Guy’s Facebook Rants Put Him In Prison, And The Supreme Court Will Hear His Case Today

Truth Out: This Time, “Free Speech” Cannot Prevail

ABA: United States v. Anthony Elonis – Third Circuit

Index on Censorship: 10 Countries that have Social Media Banned

The New York Times: Chief Justice Samples Eminem in Online Threats Case

First Amendment Center: Social Networking

Bloomberg: The 8 Most Important Cases in the New Supreme Court Term

Noel Diem

Law Street contributor Noel Diem is an editor and aspiring author based in Reading, Pennsylvania. She is an alum of Albright College where she studied English and Secondary Education. In her spare time she enjoys traveling, theater, fashion, and literature. Contact Noel at


Social media are a fundamental part of life for a large portion of the population, especially the young. But what does this involvement, where sharing a great deal of personal information is commonplace, mean for people’s views about privacy and freedom of expression? Nathaniel Swigger has investigated the use of social media and views on civil liberties and privacy. He finds that for those under the age of 25 support for freedom of expression rises, and support for privacy falls, as social media involvement increases.

Recent months have seen considerable revelations about the extent of spying by government agencies on individuals, prompting new debates about privacy and civil liberties. Even outside of the surveillance revelations, it is clear that in the age of growing social media use, the way that we feel about civil liberties is changing. My recent research looked at whether or not social media behaviors alter the way one thinks about issues like free speech and individual privacy. I found evidence that social media usage plays a role in formulating civic values, but only for people who came of age in an era of social media. The evidence indicates that social media acts like a socializing agent in the same way we would normally think of schools or early childhood experiences. The future may look very different because it will be shaped by generations that have different priorities and concerns regarding civil liberties.

Credit: Jason A. Howie (Creative Commons BY)

Key to this change, of course, is the change in social norms created by the social media revolution. It is a cliché to suggest that the Internet has changed everything (in fact it may even be a cliché to point out the cliché), but social media and communication technology have ushered structural changes into everyday life. As others have pointed out, social media provide(s) unprecedented opportunity for people. Twenty years ago, few Americans had a forum to share their views or the content of their lives. Now, almost everyone can share themselves with a public audience. Additionally, there is an expectation that they will also be able to learn about other people in the same public environment.

Raise your hand if you’ve met someone in person and then immediately followed up that meeting by looking him or her up on Facebook.

The point is that we have created a social environment where it is commonplace to share lots of information about yourself and access lots of information about other people. To put it in political terms, we increasingly exercise our right to freedom of expression, and increasingly ignore (for both ourselves and others) the right to privacy. For young adults who have been socialized in this new environment, this is the norm. As they experienced adolescence and formed relationships they had as much social activity online as they did in person, and experienced a world where they were expected to engage (e.g. share information) with others on social media sites. At a time when they were still conceptualizing individual rights (like privacy and free expression), they were simultaneously engaged in a virtual world that diminishes the former and emphasizes the latter.

To investigate the relationship between social media and support for civil liberties, I used an Internet sample provided by Qualtrics, Inc, where 913 Americans answered questions that pitted concerns for individual rights against concerns about security. For example, respondents were asked if they agreed more with the statement, “Government should be allowed to record telephone calls and monitor email in order to prevent people from planning terrorist or criminal acts,” or, “People’s conversations and email are private and should be protected by the Constitution.” The survey included 3 items on privacy, and 2 on freedom of expression. The survey asked about individuals’ frequency and type of activity on sites like Facebook and Twitter, as well as other items to capture individual personality and general political views. I combined the social media measures into a single index from 0-1 and combined civil liberties items into scales from -3 to 3 (for privacy) and -2 to 2 (for freedom of expression).

Using these measures I found a significant effect for social media for both freedom of expression and privacy. The coefficient for social media is significant and negative when privacy is the dependent variable and significant and positive when freedom of expression is the dependent variable. But this is only true when dealing with participants age 25 and under, people who experienced adolescence after the rise of social media. Even after controlling for personality traits and political ideology, there is still a significant relationship between social media activity and support for civil liberties among young adults. Those who grew up in an age of social media and actively engaged in those online activities are much more supportive of free expression and much less supportive of privacy rights.

In order to show the magnitude of these effects I used the results from modeling to generate predicted values based on increasing levels of social media use. Figure 1 shows the change in predicted support for privacy as social media use increases. For younger respondents, increase in social media use from low to medium moves the average respondent about 1 point on the scale. As a younger respondent uses social media even more his or her predicted support for privacy actually drops below 0. The size of the effect of using social media is actually comparable to the effect of fear of terrorism. In contrast, among older respondents support for privacy declines as well, but not to a statistically significant degree.  The effect on support for free expression, as seen in Figure 2, is also substantial with a 3 point increase in predicted support as social media use increases.

Figure 1 – Age and support for privacy by social media use

Figure 2 – Age and support for free speech by social media use

The data indicates that if you came of age in the new world of social media, you likely developed different priorities about privacy and expression. In the future we should expect trends like this to continue. Technology has advanced to being so heavily integrated into our lives that there is every reason to believe that it will influence our behavior, our perspectives, and our values. If technology can change views on civil liberties, what else will the new social media norms bring?

This article is a shortened version of “The Online Citizen: Is Social Media Changing Citizens’ Beliefs About Democratic Values?” in Political Behavior.

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Note:  This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of USApp– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Nathaniel Swigger –The Ohio State University
Nathaniel Swigger is an Assistant Professor, at the Newark campus of The Ohio State University. His research and teaching interests are American politics with emphasis on public opinion, political psychology, campaigns and elections, and media analysis. His current research focuses on emotional and rational responses to campaign advertising, and inter-generational differences in attitudes toward civil liberties and democratic values.


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