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The Roundtable: Twitter and the First Amendment

As private companies, social media platforms have the right to moderate content. But does their role society merit reconsidering legal frameworks around censorship?

Elon Musk’s plans for Twitter remain unclear, perhaps as much to himself as to the general public. But regardless of where he takes the company, the entrepreneur’s acquisition of the platform marks a turning point for the internet, social media, and public discourse. A panel of commentators joined Roundtable to discuss what Musk’s Twitter could look like and how it may shape the future of social networks and speech. In this segment, the panel discusses how issues of free speech and censorship apply to social media platforms.

Joy Villa argues that the issue of free speech on Twitter hinges on the distinction of a platform versus a publisher.

“A publisher has a right to edit content [and] a platform should give equal say,” she argues. “I don't mean people should be able to send death threats and hurt people and be abusive, but this line of what is abusive and what is not is so murky.”

Roy Gutterman agrees that the technicalities of free speech legislation get tricky when it comes to social media platforms: though they're privately owned, they play an outsized role in public discourse.

“No matter who owns it, it's not the government,” he observes, noting that content moderation on social media doesn't fall under existing definitions of restriction of free speech. 

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“The first amendment was designed to prevent government censorship, but that was more than 200 years ago, and we're in a world where the government plays no role," he adds. "At the end of the day, whether it's a publicly traded company or a closely held company in one man's hand, it's still not the government.”

Watch the full discussion below:

Roy Gutterman, Director, Tully Center for Free Speech

Jason Gainous, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies, Duke Kunshan University

Joy Villa, Actress, Singer and Songwriter