The First Amendment, granting Americans the right to freedom of press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and freedom to petition the government, has been one of the most heavily debated since its ratification in 1791. For years, court cases pertaining to the amendment have abounded, particularly in relation to the freedom of speech. From cases defining obscenity to those allowing for expression, the meaning of the freedom of speech has changed greatly through the years. Similarly, so has the freedom of press. As technology evolves – from the first printing press to Google Glass – so too does the media. New media calls for new laws and precedents, and social media has been no exception. The rapid pace and wide-spread accessibility of the internet and social media has caused a vacuum for laws pertaining to the subject and a need for laws and cases to define what the First Amendment means for these sites.
Ideas for the internet started as early as the Cold War. The dormant war created a need for technological advances and led to the idea of a “Galactic Network” (Brief History of the Internet). From those ideas, computer leaders joined together and created ARPANET, the first connection between four host computers. ARPANET then led to the creation of the wide-spread internet, which changed the way information could be shared and distributed (Brief History of the Internet). 1975 saw the invention of email, while 1990 saw the birth of the first website. As these forms of communication took off, the application and scrutiny of the First Amendment changed with the changing world (Brief History of the Internet).
The first well-known court case concerning freedom of speech and the internet was a 1991 case, Cubby, Inc. v. CompuServe, Inc. Cubby, Inc., a publisher of a newsletter, sued the publisher of an online rival newspaper for libel and added the online service CompuServe as a codefendant, claiming that because CompuServe published the information it was also responsible. A federal court ruled that online services were simply distributors and therefore not liable for any information posted on their servers (Cubby, Inc. v. CompuServe, Inc.). This set precedent for online libel for years to come.
A 1995 case, Stratton Oakmont, Inc. v. Prodigy, had a different outcome for internet service providers. Prodigy hosted a “Money Talk” bulletin board open for user comment, and on that board, a user alleged that Stratton Oakmont, Inc. and its president had committed criminal and fraudulent acts. The company and its president then sued Prodigy for defamation, contending that Prodigy was a “publisher” and therefore liable. The plaintiff argued that this case was different than Cubby v. CompuServe because Prodigy said on its bulletin board that it exercised editorial control, and the court found this to be true, ruling in favor of Stratton Oakmont, Inc. (Stratton Oakmont, Inc. v. Prodigy).
The nation, and Congress, took note of the...