Facebook 'Hate Speech': Is It Free Speech?

By Betty Wang, JD on May 30, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Facebook hate speech has become the topic of concern to the company, after a coalition of women's groups brought some offensive and degrading posts to its attention. In these posts, users made light of subjects like rape, sexual abuse, and domestic violence.

Now, Facebook says it's taking immediate steps to remedy this, with an update to the site's guidelines. Posts containing hate speech will be more quickly alerted to Facebook user operations team members.

If you're on Facebook, chances are you've come across an off-color comment or two while randomly browsing the site. But isn't hate speech still considered speech, and therefore, free speech? Is Facebook allowed to control this content?

The short answer is yes. Absolutely. Facebook's anti-hate speech policy is solid, from a legal standpoint, even under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Why is that?

The problem with throwing around the phrase "free speech" is that, casually, it could mean whatever you want it to mean. But, legally? It's a whole different story.

Let's start by taking a look at the exact wording of the First Amendment. It states:

"Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..."

Note that it says Congress shall make no law. The First Amendment guarantees only that the government cannot restrict free speech, basically. It only applies to the government, or government bodies.

So because Facebook is a private entity that does not fall into any government category, it can choose to limit certain types of speech that it considers harmful or in bad taste.

Still, an ACLU lawyer told ABC News that "as more of our speech migrates from sidewalks and parks to social media," new "gatekeepers" like Facebook "should be commended when they apply First Amendment principles to keep their platforms as open as possible."

So, in a nutshell, have as much fun as you want on Facebook and feel free to speak your mind and interact with others. But, just as you're free to post whatever you want, Facebook is just as free to remove it from their site. It's called free speech.

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