“Weaponizing the First Amendment”

Politicians have long known that how you frame a policy issue can determine its fate.

Consider how the term “weaponizing the First Amendment” frames the issue of speech on social media. Kara Swisher, a reporter and opinion writer at the New York Times, wrote yesterday that “Facebook, as well as Twitter and Google’s YouTube, have become the digital arms dealers of the modern age.” She continues,

They have weaponized social media. They have weaponized the First Amendment. They have weaponized civic discourse. And they have weaponized, most of all, politics.

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan also recently accused a majority of colleagues of “weaponizing the First Amendment.”

Let’s trace the implications of the term “weaponize” for free speech. The American Heritage Dictionary offers several definitions of “weaponize”:

To supply with weapons or deploy weapons in…

To equip (a missile or other delivery system) with an explosive or other weapon.

To place or mount (an explosive or nuclear device, for example) on a missile or other delivery system.

To produce or refine (a substance or biological agent, for example) for use as a weapon.

To deploy missiles or other delivery systems equipped with weapons.

Notice the connotation of violence? That’s important because in the United States speech is free of the government censor up to direct incitements to violence. The verb “weaponize” invites readers to see some speech on the internet as something like violence. Once that connection is made, censoring the speech becomes more acceptable, perhaps even required.

Kara Swisher’s column seeks to persuade Mark Zuckerberg, not justices on the Supreme Court. Facebook is not covered by the First Amendment. Swisher is inviting Zuckerberg to see some speech on Facebook as a kind of violence. Framed that way, such speech has no place on Facebook or anywhere, really. Zuckerberg can certainly remove it from Facebook; Congress could act if he does not. After all, Congress has the power to punish violence.

So next time you see the term “weaponize” think about the implications of the word for other people’s speech (it’s always other people’s speech). For those people whose speech is being equated with violence, the implications could be dire.