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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

There’s valuable speech on social media, even for kids

By David French

Last week I wrote a rather long column arguing that blanket bans on social media for children are a bad idea, even if you are persuaded (as I am) that smartphones and social media are a significant reason for increasing childhood mental health struggles. My basic point was simple: The First Amendment rights of children and adults are too precious to diminish, especially when there are less restrictive alternatives for combating the problem.

I received an enormous amount of helpful feedback, but I want to briefly highlight one response. The American Enterprise Institute’s Brad Wilcox posted a thread on X, formerly Twitter, that began like this: “Could not disagree more w/ @DavidAFrench here, partly because he doesn’t fully ack how much the teen problem w/ social media is not just about the message(s) but the medium itself. Social media does not function like some debating society for teens.”

I respect Wilcox greatly, and he’s got many valuable things to say about kids and social media, but he’s wrong in one key respect: Social media is, in fact, a debating society for teens, just as it is for adults. It’s often a miserable and contentious debating society, but social media is where an immense amount of our nation’s substantive debates takes place. Kids debate one another, and they read adult debates.

Protecting political speech is a core purpose of the First Amendment. As the Supreme Court held in Garrison v. Louisiana, “Speech concerning public affairs is more than self-expression; it is the essence of self-government.” One reason children enjoy First Amendment rights is that they are essentially citizens in training. They have to learn how to engage in political debate.

There are certainly issues with the medium itself, and there are ways to combat the pernicious effects of the medium without obliterating access to the content. The First Amendment, for example, permits reasonable and content-neutral restrictions on the time, place and manner of freedom of expression, and it’s easy to see a valid ban on smartphones during school hours. It’s also worth considering whether certain features of social media — such as infinite scroll — could be limited.

But it’s important to note that time, place and manner restrictions can’t function as a form of disguised content discrimination. If you’re looking for reasons to ban social media because of what’s on the platform, then you’re playing a dangerous constitutional game.

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