Free Speech and Social Media

One of the popular topics discussed this week at the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas has been how to balance free speech, personal rights, and protected content in the social media world.

The big question is: can you really post whatever you want without any consequences?

We do have freedom of speech, but not the freedom to publicize misinformation. It seems that social media has given people a sense of freedom, where they feel like they can say whatever they want, whenever they want, and to whomever they want. However… when you say that statement aloud, it does not quite seem “okay”.

Freedom of Speech

It seems like the term “Freedom of Speech” is used a lot to defend unprotected speech. However, what is the difference between protected and unprotected speech?

Protected Speech = you are allowed to express yourself without interference of the government; this includes the content of messages in advertising. This DOES NOT INCLUDE misleading or deceptive content, or content that uses profanity or racial slurs.

Unprotected Speech = speech that is subject to restrictions, including:

  • Content infringing on a copyright, trademark, or patent
  • Defamatory content
  • Profanity filled content

Free speech is a big concern for companies entering social media, because they understandably want to protect their brand. Some companies, particularly in regulated industries, have instated social media policies for employees regarding their personal social media profiles, in addition to company profiles. This is not always the right approach for all companies. Choosing to create a policy to restrict employees’ personal profiles will depend on many factors, including the industry your company is in and company culture.

Setting Guidelines for Company Profiles

There are steps you can take to limit and control content posted on your company’s profiles, such as posting guidelines or page rules. The majority of the social media community views it as acceptable to regulate user-generated content (including comments on Facebook), when you have clearly posted a guideline for what type of content is permitted. It is just as important to consistently enforce the guidelines that you put in place as it is to post them on your profile. Consistent enforcement will decrease any backlash from the social media community when you deem it necessary to delete specific user-generated content. Actually, most social media sites require you to moderate you page for both defamatory content and content infringing on another person’s rights.

While the goal of social media is to create a conversation, it does not mean that we can all say whatever we want, all the time, regardless of other’s rights.

What do you think?

Image: Stuart Miles /

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