NEW YORK — The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University today sent a letter to the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy Recruiting Commands demanding that they cease banning individuals from their respective esports Twitch channels, @USArmyEsports and @AmericasNavy, on the basis of viewpoint. The Institute sent the letter on behalf of Jordan Uhl, a Twitch user who was banned earlier this month after he asked questions about U.S. war crimes in chats associated with those channels.
“Once the government opens up a space for expressive activity to the public at large, the First Amendment prohibits it from excluding speakers from that space on the basis of viewpoint,” said Katie Fallow, Senior Staff Attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute. “The Army and Navy can’t constitutionally delete comments or ban people from these Twitch channels simply for asking questions about issues they would rather not address.”
Both the U.S. Army and Navy esports Twitch channels are official government-run channels used as part of the Army’s and Navy’s recruiting efforts. Both channels are open to Twitch users generally, and anyone who follows the channels can view livestreamed esports as well as chat with U.S. Army and Navy esports team players, moderators, and other followers of the channel. Team players and moderators frequently respond to questions and statements posted in the chat rooms.
Today’s letter notes that the military branches have defended banning Mr. Uhl by claiming that his “messages constituted ‘harassment,’” violating Twitch’s terms of service and their posted channel rules. According to the letter, these arguments are without merit. “Mr. Uhl’s messages drew attention to prior U.S. military actions in the context of the Army’s and Navy’s use of Twitch as a recruiting tool. His messages were quintessential political speech, which lie at the ‘core of the First Amendment.’”
“Because the Army and Navy are using these Twitch channels to recruit young people, this issue is about much more than just esports,” said Meenakshi Krishnan, Legal Fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute. “Participants in these forums have a constitutional right to engage in speech critical of the military. The Army and Navy certainly have no legitimate interest in suppressing speech relating to war crimes.”
In related cases, courts have held that once government-run social media accounts are opened up to public comment they constitute public forums and the government may not exclude people based on their views. In July of last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held in a lawsuit brought by the Knight First Amendment Institute that the president violated the First Amendment when he blocked critics from his @realDonaldTrump Twitter account. The court denied rehearing en banc in March of this year; the government has until the end of August to ask the Supreme Court to hear the case. In another case argued by the Knight Institute, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled last January in favor of a Virginia resident who was blocked from the Facebook page of a local public official.
Read today’s letter to the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy Recruiting Channels here.
Jordan Uhl wrote about this issue last week in The Nation, The US Military Is Using Online Gaming to Recruit Teens.
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