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Online Speech - Where Do We Draw The Line

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What constitutes free speech on social media platforms? Where should the government draw the line on online free speech?

Online social media provides people with anonymity and a screen to hide behind. It is quite possible that people feel more comfortable spewing speech they may not have said in person on a social media platform or forum where the social repercussions are less visibly severe. Another concern that attaches itself to social media communications is the lack of clear intentions. Body language and expressions can convey the intent behind a person’s speech that emoticons just cannot get. With all these concerns, it’s becoming increasingly clear that free speech needs to be addressed with respect to the law on social media platform. There needs to be guidelines for what is and is not acceptable to say online.

There are many people that would disagree with this stance and claim that free speech is free speech and should be protected no matter what. To an extent, of course, this is applies. Free speech is a liberty that is important to our national identity. But what about when the speech of one individual or group threatens or endangers the safety of another? American philosopher John Rawls’s theory of justice principle states, “Each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all”. What Rawls is saying, in short, is that everyone deserves to have human liberties as long as they are equally applied to everyone and do not infringe on anyone else’s liberties or freedoms. Allowing unlimited, unchecked “free” speech on the internet, including threats and severe bullying, puts the freedoms and liberties of other citizens at risk. It makes it difficult for authorities to decide when there is a true risk or threat to another’s life or when someone is simply exercising their “free” speech.

This Monday, on June 16, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States agreed to review the paradigm of online speech and whether violent images and threatening language posted on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter should be treated as a threat under the law. The case in question involved a man named Anthony D. Elonis, who posted questionable pictures and violent rants against his wife, former co-workers, and law enforcement officials. The court will consider whether the law requires proof of the defendant’s intent to harm. Although the White House believes there is nothing particularly unique about this case, other than the platform, but this in itself, distinguishes the case. The age of social media requires clarification from the law and this SCOTUS decision will hopefully provide that.

What does this case mean for the average person? It means be careful what you put on social media. A general rule you may want to follow when posting to sites like Twitter and Facebook is, do not type it if you would not say it to the recipient in person, face to face. Consider how your postings will be perceived by the recipient and by others. Most importantly remember that anything you put online will be visible for others to see and interpret and it’s very hard to remove things from the internet. Social media is meant to connect, share opinions and views, and provide an easier way to communicate. Enjoy it for what it is but try your best to consider the repercussions of pressing the enter button. 


Barnes, Robert. "Supreme Court to consider online threats case." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 16 June 2014. Web. 17 June 2014. .

Wenar, Leif. "John Rawls." Stanford University. Stanford University, 25 Mar. 2008. Web. 17 June 2014. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rawls/#TwoPriJusFai>

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Joseph M. Ghabour
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Auto, Bus, Pedestrian, Motorcycle accident, medical malpractice and worker's compensation attorney.
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