A&A: Did Facebook Violate My First Amendment Rights When it Deleted My Comment As “Hate Speech”?

Q: Recently Facebook removed a comment I made on my account and warned me about “hate speech.” This is a real strongly-worded accusation, and “hate” definitely was not my intention. I think it is or should be illegal to call something “hate speech,” just because it is conservative and opinionated and Facebook’s policing of my account is unwarranted legally. Do I have a case?

A: In general, First Amendment claims can only be brought when the government attempts to suppress the speech of its citizens — i.e. when there is “state action” that suppresses free speech. It is unlikely that you would have any claim against a privately-owned website for infringement of your First Amendment right to free speech. The Supreme Court recently recognized that online forums are now an “important place” for the “exchange of views” in Packingham v. North Carolina, 137 S.Ct. 1730 (2017), but it did not apply the full protections of the First Amendment to speech on privately operated internet forums at this time.

You may want to review Facebook’s terms of service to see if its actions against you fall within the parameter of those rules. While it is difficult to say whether you would have any judicial recourse if the administrator violated any such rules, you could, at the very least, bring them to their attention.

Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries. In responding to these inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representation. No attorney-client relationship has been formed by way of this response.