The U.S. Supreme Court debated Monday whether access to social media is guaranteed under the First Amendment. The points contributed to the case of a North Carolina law barring registered sex offenders from such sites.
Throughout the session, the justices considered the merits and importance of involvement on platforms such as Facebook Inc FB and Twitter Inc TWTR.
“How many people under 30 do you think don't use these sites to get all their information?” Justice Elena Kagan said. “Under 35? I mean, increasingly, this is the way people get everything — all information. This is the way people structure their civic community life.”
Social media, they contended, is no longer a choice communication platform. It now has tendrils in various sectors of society and, in some cases, is required for full democratic participation.
Forbidding access, then, limits the extent to which Americans contribute to their communities.
The Public Square
“All 50 governors, all 100 senators, every member of the House has a Twitter account,” Kagan said. “So this has become a crucial, crucially important channel of political communication. And a person couldn't go onto those sites and find out what these members of our government are thinking or saying or doing.”
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In the same vein, Justice Anthony Kennedy likened social media bans to “public square” bans.
“The point is that these people are being cut off from a very large part of the marketplace of ideas,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said. “And the First Amendment includes not only the right to speak, but the right to receive information.”
Kagan added that social media sites have become important elements of American religious culture and restricted access limits the exercise of religious identity.
“There are surveys that say how many Americans have communicated their faith on social networking sites in the past week, and it turns out that one in five,” she said. “That's about 50 million Americans use this for religious community purposes. So whether it's political community, whether it's religious community, I mean, these sites have become embedded in our culture as ways to communicate and ways to exercise our constitutional rights, haven't they?”
Justice Stephen Breyer considered sites that facilitate financial discussions.
Investment platforms have become increasingly social, such as eToro or Seeking Alpha. Some traders and investors are reliant on these sites to effectively manage their finances.
Social media sites also help Americans secure employment. Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted the case of LinkedIn Corp LNKD), where “many, many people in our society today are looking for jobs.”
In some ways, the sites are also required for employees to meet work objectives. The petitioner before the court noted that ex-convicts in North Carolina have lost jobs because their positions depend on access to such sites. For example, those trained in IT cannot effectively perform the tasks of their trade with heavy media restrictions.
The Scope Of The Issue
Justice Samuel Alito, Jr., considered the definition of “social sites” and the breadth of platforms relevant to the debate of constitutional rights. Could potential protections be limited to the traditional media of Facebook and Twitter, or ought the debate encompass other fora such as the New York Times Co NYT or Betty Crocker?
The jury is still out on the issue — and the particular case that prompted the debate.
But if anything came of Monday's argument, it's a clearer understanding of the pervasiveness of social media in American life.
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