The First Amendment doesn’t guarantee you the rights you think it does


By AJ Willingham and Scottie Andrew, CNN

Design: India Hayes and Alberto Mier, CNN

Updated 11:56 AM ET, Tue January 12, 2021

That’s it. That’s the entirety of our Constitution’s First Amendment, the central tenet of our American way of life that gets dragged out every time someone’s banned from Twitter.

There’s a lot going on in those few sentences, and it’s important to know when and how it applies to common situations — and, equally as important, when it doesn’t.

Let’s look at some common First Amendment arguments, illuminated and debunked by constitutional experts.

This is not a First Amendment issue, though plenty of people think it is.

This scenario illustrates one of the biggest misconceptions people have about the First Amendment. Bottom line: It protects you from the government punishing or censoring or oppressing your speech. It doesn’t apply to private organizations, like Twitter and Facebook, so those companies can ban speech the First Amendment would otherwise protect.

However, while it’s not unconstitutional, if private platforms outright ban certain types of protected speech, it sets an uncomfortable precedent for the values of free speech.

If you work for a private company, it’s probably not a First Amendment issue.

As citizens, employees have the right to express themselves and exercise their First Amendment. But those rights don’t translate to the private workplace, Gutterman says.

But just because a private employer has the right to fire someone for something they say doesn’t give them legal carte blanche. Depending on what the fired employee said, the employer could be in violation of the Civil Rights Act, or possibly in violation of contract law

If you’re a government employee, it’s complicated.

Institutions like police departments, public schools and local government branches can’t restrict employee’s free speech rights, but they do need to assure that such speech doesn’t keep the employee from doing their job, Nott says. It’s definitely a balancing act, and the rise of social media has made it harder for such institutions to regulate their employee’s speech in a constitutional manner.

If it’s a private institution, it’s probably not a First Amendment issue.

If it’s a public institution, the lines can get blurry.

“If you invite someone to speak on your campus and are a public university, you have to respect their First Amendment rights,” Nott says. That doesn’t mean you can’t put regulations on a speech, like dictating the time, place, venue and suggestions for subject matter. It just means you can’t do so in a way that discriminates against a certain point of view.

If students protesting play a hand in moving or canceling a speaker, that presents a different free speech challenge.

“If a speaker were to take legal action for being blocked from speaking, they can’t do it against the students. You can’t take constitutional action against a group of private citizens,” she adds.

Such a complaint would have to go against the school, for allowing the constitutional breach to happen.

Definitely a First Amendment issue.

But, like pretty much everything in law, there are exceptions and nuances.

“It’s definitely unconstitutional, unless you are trying to incite people to violence with your speech,” Nott says. Even then, it needs to be a true threat — one that has immediacy and some sort of actual intent.

It’s a private company, so it’s not a First Amendment issue.

There’s that refrain again: Private companies, like social media sites, can do whatever they want. Users agree to a site’s terms of service when they join.

But whether blocking content — even offensive or violent content — is within the spirit of free speech is another issue, Gutterman says.

While such sites retain the right to remove content they don’t like, they are also protected by the Communications Decency Act, Section 230.

“That says, if you are an internet company and you have some way for people to post or leave comments, you are not liable for what they do,” Nott says. This covers things like obscenity, violence and threats.

The problem is, this protection often butts up against the enforcement of basic community standards.

“Facebook is under enormous pressure to take down, not just violent and illegal content, but fake news,” Nott says. “And the more it starts to play editor for its own site, the more likely it is to lose that Section 230 protection.”

A First Amendment issue — usually.

You are fully within your rights to record the police doing their job in public. And if you get arrested while doing so, your constitutional rights are being violated.

This is, unless you were doing something unlawful at the time of your arrest.

In a heated situation with police, that can also become a gray area. Physical assault or threats could obviously get you arrested, but what about if you were just yelling at the police while recording, say, to get them to stop an act or to pay attention?

“That’s tough,” Nott says. “If you were disturbing the peace, you can get arrested for that, or for other things. But the bottom line is it’s not a crime to record police activities in a public space.”

A version of this story was first published in 2017.