Our nation’s long-standing First Amendment tolerance for varied speech — even speech that is false or hateful — may need recalibrating in the digital era, suggested Columbia University President and Knight Institute board member Lee Bollinger, speaking at a March 10 virtual discussion entitled Private Censorship, Free Speech, and Public Policy. The nature of this recalibration is an open question, he added “I don’t think it’s a decided question. I don’t think it’s an easy question.” 

Bollinger pointed to other First Amendment approaches that might serve as regulatory models, among them those regulating broadcast media. There, like with the internet, he said the concern is when “a small number of people acquire extraordinary control over very powerful instruments of communication.”

Katie Fallow, a Knight Institute senior staff attorney who also spoke, acknowledged the need to address the “real, serious, tangible harms” that come with speech on the internet and social media, which she said have the potential to disrupt the democratic process. But she added that historically it has been the regulation of newly introduced technologies rather than the technologies themselves that has raised its own set of concerns. “There was always a sense that a new form of communication is more harmful in a way that the old forms were not, and thus we should regulate it,” observed Fallow.

The full one-hour video below also includes a discussion of the social media deplatforming of former President Trump and, in addition to Bollinger and Fallow, features former Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch and moderator and former ACLU President Nadine Strossen. The event was sponsored by Columbia University’s Society for Law, Science, and Technology and the American Constitution Society Columbia Chapter.