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Is Twitter violating President Trump's right to free speech? Expert says no

The First Amendment only protects people from government censorship. Twitter and Facebook are private companies.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Twitter's permanent suspension of President Donald Trump's personal account for violating the platform's rules has led to online claims of censorship and a violation of First Amendment rights.

The president himself, his son, Donald Trump Jr., and conservative allies have railed against the social media platform for what they say is an attempt to quell Trump's right to free speech.

Clay Calvert, a law professor and the head of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida, says Twitter's suspension of Trump's account is fair game.

"The First Amendment only protects us from government censorship, not censorship by private entities," said Calvert, who has co-authored more than 150 law journal articles on issues related to freedom of expression. "In this case, Twitter is a private entity, so the First Amendment really has no bearing at all. 

"If you think about it, if a private entity like Twitter or Facebook decided not to have you on their website, that's their deal...if the government were to try to throw you off or censor you, that's a First Amendment question."

In a blog post, Twitter said two tweets the president sent on Friday were the final straw -- not because of any inflammatory language, but because of how they were being perceived on social media and the risk of further incitement of violence. Twitter claims future attacks were already being discussed on and off their site.

Twitter's editorial power can be questioned, but Calvert said the legal standing for censorship is pretty clear.

"The argument here is really that, as long as Twitter plays by its own terms of use or terms of service, it's more like a contractual issue," Calvert said. "If President Trump fails to follow those terms that Twitter enforces, I would say equally to everybody, as long as they're doing that, then there really is no issue."

Even in his remarks on Friday, Trump said his efforts to curb protections from Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook from liability for the content that's posted and generated by third parties, will continue. 

U.S. Rep. Greg Steube, a Republican and Trump ally who oversees Florida's 17th Congressional District covering parts of Sarasota and Polk counties, told 10 Tampa Bay this week he's been involved in trying to "curb the abuses and censoring we've seen in big tech" and filed a bill to reform Section 230, claiming it consistently leads to a violation of First Amendment rights.

RELATED: Florida Rep. Steube says President Trump isn't to blame for chaos at the Capitol

Calvert said as long as platforms don't create their own content and merely host third-party generated content, they have immunity under Section 230.

"The issue right now is whether or not platforms like Facebook or Twitter have become so powerful that we need to treat them more like broadcasting," he said. "...I think it's going to be a tough slog to get Section 230 immunity repealed here, to say that we need to treat these private actors on the internet more like they're broadcasters and, therefore, can be regulated closely."

But is there a conversation to be had about the power of social media platforms in how we, as a society, communicate?

"There probably is a question to be asked about how powerful these platforms have become in terms of social media...whether or not we need more players in the game," Calver said. "It is a conversation we can have about whether the government should come in and more closely regulate these social media platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, but frankly, I think the changes in that realm are not going to happen."

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