What First Amendment protections exist for speech on social media?

The U.S. Supreme Court has emphasized the importance of social media for the free exchange of ideas, proclaiming in Packingham v. North Carolina (2017) that “[w]hile in the past there may have been difficulty in identifying the most important places (in a spatial sense) for the exchange of views, today the answer is clear. It is cyberspace — the vast democratic forums of the Internet in general, and social media in particular.”

Nevertheless, social media companies are private entities, and according to current Supreme Court precedent, social media companies have agency to decide what expression is permitted on their websites. As explained by the Supreme Court in Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck (2019), “the Free Speech Clause prohibits only governmental abridgment of speech. The Free Speech Clause does not prohibit private abridgment of speech.” Although this could be reinterpreted by the Supreme Court, at present, social media companies are not bound by the First Amendment like a public university is. Thus, you will want to take notice of the terms of service and related policies if you open a social media account to see what expression is permitted on that social media website or application.

Additionally, if you engage in expression on social media that is unprotected by the First Amendment (e.g., harassment, true threats, incitement to imminent lawless action), you could face disciplinary action from UWM. However, public educational institutions cannot punish students’ protected speech on social media, even if some people find it offensive.