Leslie Jones Twitter Fiasco Raises Free Speech, but Twitter’s Actions Lawful


twitter birds

“Ghostbusters” star Leslie Jones has been all over the news recently after she became the target of allegedly hateful speech on Twitter.  In response, Twitter permanently banned the Twitter account of Breitbart Tech Editor Milo Yiannopoulos for allegedly taking part.

Debate quickly flared: was Twitter justified in its action, especially given that the accounts of members of the Islamic State Group, known commonly as ISIS, still remain on the social network?

In fact, 70 online platforms are being used by terrorist groups to spread propaganda, according to a report released July 22 by Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency.  And Twitter has recently been sued for allegedly allowing ISIS to use its site for that purpose.

Twitter’s rules expressly prohibit threats or the promotion of violence and terrorism. They also ban harassment and “hateful conduct,” which Twitter defines as: promoting violence against, directly attacking or threatening others “on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability or disease.”

From a U.S. legal standpoint, Twitter is free to remove content and suspend accounts as it sees fit.  The First Amendment’s free speech protections, widely touted by those who want to spout their online opinions without restrictions, apply only to government action, and Twitter is a private company.  

In addition, a federal statute—Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act—protects online publishers such as Twitter against liability for restricting access to content that it considers to be obscene, excessively violent, harassing or otherwise objectionable.   

Twitter’s official site says that it has 310 million monthly active users.  It’s likely impossible to monitor every post that appears on the network. 

According to Floyd Abrams, a partner specializing in First Amendment and media law at Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP in New York, deciding what speech on social media constitutes harassment appears to be easier than deciding what speech is likely to assist in leading to an act of terrorism.

Regardless of the policy behind it, Gary S. Edinger, a First Amendment lawyer in Gainesville, Florida, said that Twitter is allowed to decide which content to remove from its site.

“It is probably foolish for Twitter to worry about Leslie Jones hate posts as opposed to ISIS propaganda, but that is a public relations issue, not a constitutional one,” he said.