• Stephen Badea

Is Free Speech Under Attack? Section 230 Struck Down

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Lately, there has been a lot of talk regarding Section 230 in the news, as well as amongst politicians on both sides of the aisle.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Thursday, May 28 to repeal this provision. Despite this appearing as a partisan move, both the Democrats and the Republicans have had qualms with this portion of the Communications Decency Act. Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden also has come out in favor of repealing this act.

But why? Everybody is aware of the varying effects of social media, and Democrats and Republicans each have their own opinions on how it should be used. However, this one short but crucial provision appears to unify figures from both parties.

So let us unpack this provision, as well as examine what is to become of social media in the wake of Mr. Trump’s new executive order.

Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act states that any online platform for speech and discourse cannot be held responsible for content posted by its users. Thus, any libel or insulting material will not warrant a lawsuit of Facebook, Twitter, or whichever platform that post was shared on.

Furthermore, it gives companies some leeway in moderating content that may be deemed as offensive and inappropriate, all while not being held liable for censoring free speech.

People in favor of this law praise it because it allows new startups and businesses a chance to grow without being sued for defamation and going under as a result.

Despite Section 230 being known as “The Law That Created The Internet,” its critics today are ever more vocal about its removal and/or amendment.

Conservatives have decried this section of the act, claiming that conservative voices and speech are silenced in favor of more liberal posts.

Liberals, on the other hand, criticize this provision because companies would be less inclined to take down offensive content. This is because Section 230 allows such companies to determine their own rules for what is proper and improper on their online platforms.

Given both sides of this argument, it is clear this is a very consequential piece of legislation with which to be grappling. However, doing away with it entirely could be a massive breach of First Amendment rights.

For instance, companies would automatically be subject to liability should anyone sue them for negligence in failing to take down a post that was seen as offensive. Such accusations would result in large social media platforms being broken up with ease. It will not be the companies choosing what is deemed appropriate, but the government. Thus, anything incriminating or offensive to the government’s interests would prohibit people from speaking out on that platform again.

Situations like this could possibly become regular events now that Mr. Trump’s executive order has been signed. His motives were clear after Twitter censored his post regarding the George Floyd protests.

He employed the same talking point as others in his party, citing political bias as Twitter’s motive to block (but not completely delete) his tweet about the recent protests in Minneapolis.

Twitter and Google have publicly denounced Mr. Trump’s move, calling it “reactionary.” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reiterated his stance that interfering with political posts is improper.

In the near future, it is possible that many of the big companies that we are all familiar with today may soon be broken up and relegated to the history books because they no longer have control of what is designated as hate speech or slander.

The very notion of what free speech constitutes is changing before our very eyes.

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