Social media, Trump, and the question of the First Amendment
There is no constitutional right to tweet. President Donald Trump's Twitter and other social media accounts have been blocked, in some cases, permanently. | via Twitter

“Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before the fall.” In plain English, actions and words have consequences, and they’ll often come back to haunt you as an apparition of your personal and public misdeeds.

For Donald John Trump, there is no escape from reality. No golf course will offer refuge. Any calls for asylum will go unheard, and no (self) pardon will erase his history-making moment: being the only president impeached twice.

The storming of the U.S. Capitol will live in infamy, and the fallout, including complicit behavior by members of Congress and law enforcement, will overshadow the first months of the incoming Biden administration and dominate online discussions.

Social media—Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, and beyond—have transformed political communication across the spectrum, but they particularly enabled less-than-desirable organizations, politicians, and individuals to spread racist and divisive rhetoric to a broad audience.

Trump has gone on record several times saying Twitter was a “tremendous platform” that allowed him to speak directly to voters, bypassing what he claimed was unfair media coverage, the “Fake News.”

“I doubt I would be here (as president) if it weren’t for social media, to be honest with you,” said Trump in a 2017 Fox News interview.

And Trump’s Twitter account has been a raging river of inflammatory statements, racist remarks, and asinine conspiracy theories. Over time (too much), social media began adding warning labels to misinformed or conspiratorial tweets.

Yet, in the darkest recesses of some individuals’ minds, Trump and his ilk are the victims of the “deep state,” censorship, and a myriad of other made-up grievances. And to them, big tech is to blame.

So, they went in search of like-minded (fascist) folk.

Their hate and sedition migrated over to Parler, a microblogging site marketing itself as a “free speech, unbiased alternative to mainstream social media,” and there they were free to plan out the violence of Jan. 6, 2021.

As the world watched in horrified amazement at the unfolding scene of Trump’s mob storming the Capitol, social media went on the offensive, shutting down Trump’s accounts and cracking down on users promoting similar rhetoric.

“These platforms have served as core organizing infrastructure for violent, far-right groups and militia movements for several years now,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia.

Parler—where hate found a home—is no longer online. Amazon Web Services booted them off their hosting server.

“Recently, we’ve seen a steady increase in…violent content on your website, all of which violates our terms,” Amazon said in a letter to Parler. “It also seems that Parler is still trying to determine its position on content moderation. You remove some [content] when contacted by us or others, but not always with urgency. Your CEO recently stated publicly that he doesn’t ‘feel responsible for any of this, and neither should the platform’.”

“We cannot provide services to a customer that is unable to effectively identify and remove content that encourages or incites violence against others,” concluded Amazon.

Parler countered Amazon’s action by filing a laughable court motion requesting a temporary restraining order. Parler argued the move by Amazon was politically motivated, suppressed free speech, and was a conspiracy by big tech to stifle free-market competition.

The silencing of Parler drew the non-sensible ire of Trump darling Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., you know, the one who wore a gas mask on March 4, 2020, while voting on a bill dedicating billions of dollars to combat COVID-19.

“We cannot live in a world where the terms of service on Twitter are more important than the terms laid out by our Founding Fathers in the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights,” Gaetz said on Fox News.

There’s just one problem. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and its protections apply only to the government censoring speech. Private companies have the right to set their own rules and standards that must be followed, meaning they can kick out whoever violated the terms of agreement.

There is no constitutional right to tweet. Therefore, that right can’t be violated. It’s that simple.

Amazon made this clear in its response filed with the court.

“This case is not about suppressing speech or stifling viewpoints. It is not about a conspiracy to restrain trade. Instead, this case is about Parler’s demonstrated unwillingness and inability to remove from the servers of Amazon Web Services (“AWS”) content that threatens public safety, such as by inciting and planning the rape, torture, and assassination of named public officials and private citizens,” said Amazon.

“There is no legal basis in AWS’s customer agreements or otherwise to compel AWS to host content of this nature. AWS notified Parler repeatedly that its content violated the parties’ agreement, requested removal, and reviewed Parler’s plan to address the problem, only to determine that Parler was both unwilling and unable to do so. AWS suspended Parler’s account as a last resort to prevent further access to such content, including plans for violence to disrupt the impending Presidential transition.”

A look at some of rhetoric from Parler users:

  • “Fry’em up. The whole fkn crew. #pelosi #aoc #thesquad #soros #gates #chuckschumer #hrc #obama #adamschiff #blm #antifa we are coming for you and you will know it.”

  • “#JackDorsey … you will die a bloody death alongside Mark Suckerturd [Zuckerberg].… It has been decided and plans are being put in place. Remember the photographs inside your home while you slept? Yes, that close. You will die a sudden death!” 

  • “We are going to fight in a civil War on Jan.20th, Form MILITIAS now and acquire targets.”

  • “On January 20th we need to start systematicly [sic] assassinating [sic] #liberal leaders, liberal activists, #blm leaders and supporters, members of the #nba #nfl #mlb #nhl #mainstreammedia anchors and correspondents and #antifa. I already have a newsworthy event planned.”

  • “Shoot the police that protect these shitbag senators right in the head then make the senator grovel a bit before capping they ass.”

  • “After the firing squads are done with the politicians the teachers are next.” 

  • “Death to @zuckerberg @realjeffbezos @jackdorsey @pichai.” 

  • “White people need to ignite their racial identity and rain down suffering and death like a hurricane upon zionists.” 

  • “Put a target on these motherless trash [Antifa] they aren’t human taking one out would be like stepping on a roach no different.” 

  • “We need to act like our forefathers did Kill [Black and Jewish people] all Leave no victims or survivors.” 

  • “We are coming with our list we know where you live we know who you are and we are coming for you and it starts on the 6th civil war… Lol if you will think it’s a joke… Enjoy your last few days you have.” 

  • “This bitch [Stacey Abrams] will be good target practice for our beginners.” 

  • “This cu** [United States Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao] should be… hung for betraying their country.” 

  • “Hang this mofo [Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger] today.” 

  • “HANG THAt N***** ASAP”

And if we look closer, the language used by Trump and friends before, during, and after Jan. 6 might not be protected by the First Amendment either.

Parler became the home for much of the extreme right’s online socializing and conspiring, but it has now been shut down by Amazon Web Services. | AP

“If the liberal Democrats take the Senate and the White House — and they’re not taking this White House — we’re going to fight like hell, I’ll tell you right now,” said Trump during a Jan. 4 rally in Georgia. “We’re going to take it back.”

Two days later, atop a stadium riser in front of the Capitol building just before the mob went marching, Trump was recorded saying: “All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical left Democrats, which is what they’re doing, and stolen by the fake news media. That’s what they’ve done and what they’re doing. We will never give up. We will never concede, it doesn’t happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved.”

Chants of “Fight for Trump!” soon followed, and the rest… well you know what happened.

In the case of Brandenburg v. Ohio, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded, using a two-pronged test, that speech can be prohibited if it is “directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action,” and “ is likely to incite or produce such action.”

You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater. You can’t start a fire, walk away, and then proceed to blame the match. And you can’t encourage supporters to “fight to take back the presidency” and not be held accountable for inciting seditious insurrection.

Do the crime, pay the time, right Donald? Isn’t that what law and order’s all about?

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.