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Some of you need a civics refresher.

The First Amendment only protects your speech from government censorship. That's federal, state and local authorities to whom you pay taxes. It's got nothing to do with Facebook or Twitter or any other private entity that hands you a bullhorn in exchange for you giving them access to your FICO score and IP address.

They can take that bullhorn away from you any time they like; it's their bullhorn. They can turn off your microphone. They can suspend your account. They can put you in a corner and require you to play nice before they let you back out into the recreation area.

They can do this even if you are, say, the president of the United States of America. No matter how much he sulks or whines, they don't have to give him a bullhorn.

Which shouldn't really matter. Because if you are the president of the United States of America, you've got a bunch of people sitting around waiting to stick microphones and cameras in your face and broadcast whatever profound or silly stable genius or crazy thing (no judgment) you say around the world. You can probably get the networks to break into regular programming to put you on.

You can't say the president of the United States is being censored because private entities like Facebook and Twitter have decided it's not in their best interest to hand him a bullhorn.

You don't have to like what private entities like Facebook and Twitter do. If you don't (and who does?) then you don't have to use them. You can opt out.

Maybe you should consider that. Because Big Tech is getting something out of the bargain, and you should understand before you agree to its terms of service that you are not its client, but its product.

It makes money by offering other companies a crack at you. It's gambling on you being a mark, that you are predictable enough and susceptible enough to the come-ons of advertisers and the siren calls of grifters that advertisers and grifters will keep paying Facebook and Twitter to give you a bullhorn so that you might give yourself away.

On the other hand, if you go in open-eyed and play it smart, maybe you can get some benefit out of Big Tech. Because it allows you a platform from which you can broadcast your thoughts and prayers. I use Facebook and Twitter because my livelihood depends in part on my being perceived as someone who has opinions and because I see some value in being able to connect with people with whom I might not otherwise.

Some people say funny things on social media. Some say interesting things. It's not a chore for me to skip over what's not funny or interesting.

When I Google something--like the street price of a Gibson J-45 Standard guitar--I can count on ads for guitars and guitar lessons showing up in my Facebook feed for the next few days. Recently I've done some digital paintings using Procreate on my iPad, so now Facebook is showing me ads for third-party filters and "hand-drawn marker textures" that I can buy and download to make my doodles more pretty. If I were the sort of person who freaks out about being tracked online, I would freak out.

As it is, I sometimes welcome the shopping prompts. Though I can understand how some people could think them insidious.

But I always assume my Internet browsing is being tracked, because, well, it's not my own private Idaho. I have an expectation of privacy in my house, but not on the Internet. Going on the Internet is like going out in public--someone will see you, and if you don't want to be perceived as a jackass you probably shouldn't act like a jackass.

And if you act like a jackass, there's a chance that you'll get kicked out of some places.

We all ought to be more tolerant of each other, and shouldn't necessarily kick people out of the club just because they say things with which others might disagree. It's not good to insulate yourself from ideas you find abhorrent and people you find obnoxious.

But in the real world, the people who own the spaces where we congregate have the right to decide what kind of behavior they will tolerate. They can demand that you wear a mask (or appropriate dress). They can make rules against wearing spikes in the clubhouse. They can ban you because you make everyone feel weird with your incessant chatter about trolls and fairies or whatever.

Is it fair? I don't know. That's the way it is.

I can say pretty much anything I want in this column, but you betcha there are limits. Lots of people in my situation have overstepped those limits, and sometimes they deserve to be censured (not the same thing as censored) and sometimes they are right to do what their consciences dictate and brave to risk upsetting the people who own their particular bullhorn. But the bullhorn belongs to the bullhorn owner.

And if the bullhorn owners think they might be held legally liable for something one of their bullhorns amplifies, like if someone takes a bullhorn into a crowded theater (yeah, the good old days when theaters could be crowded) and tells everyone in the theater to march over to the neighboring bookstore and burn it down because there are witches in the books, it would be in their interest to take that bullhorn away as soon as possible.

And you can't call that "censorship" and be correct. Maybe you could say the bullhorn owners are covering their butts.

If you are a bullhorn borrower, it's probably best to remember that you're not entitled to much. You can say what you want, and unless you weaponize your speech in very specific ways, you won't be thrown in jail for it. But you will face consequences. You will inevitably make some people mad or hurt their feelings or expose your own ignorance.

Which--believe me--you will do from time to time if you decide to avail yourself of the proffered bullhorn.

And while it hardly takes a profile in courage to spout off on the Internet (or in a newspaper), saying anything about anything always involves an assumption of some risk.

My advice is that everyone needs an editor. And an internal censor.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at and read his blog at


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