First Amendment Rights and Fighting Words: Social Media Usage and Impact

Kimberlee Buck  |  Contributing Writer

On Nov. 5, 2013, the social media application Yik Yak hit the dorms and apartments of 200-plus college campuses and universities across the U.S. Some students feel the negative use of the app is crossing the fine line between First Amendment rights and causing harm to others.

“APU students are being affected by the negative posts on the app by the app serving as a distraction from studies, a privacy violator, rumor fabricator, as well as a reputation killer,” junior political science major Paul Konadu said. “I’ve heard a lot of negative things about this app and how it has ruined people’s reputations as well [as] intruded on their personal lives.”

According to the First Amendment, individuals have a right to freedom of speech, religion, press, peaceably assemble and petition government for a redress of grievances. But the amendment does not protect fighting words or obscenity, according to U.S. judicial rulings.

Fighting words can be defined as those causing a breach of peace. Obscenity is defined as any word or expression that can be seen as offensive or otherwise indecent.

These types of language may be considered an invasion of privacy. “The kind of things that are said on this app are defaming people or damaging their reputation and the right to safety when people use information or send messages that threaten the security and safety of other people or even of the nation,” said Bala Musa, chairman and professor of the Department of Communication Studies. “So there is a very thin line there in terms of this freedom we have given to us through the First Amendment to provide democracy and free speech and dialogue, but anytime we are exercising that, we have to realize that there are rights that people are entitled to.”

In other countries, there may not be any governmental laws that dictate freedom of speech. In the U. S., the government would have a hard time banning various applications such as Yik Yak, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram because of the First Amendment environment.

“In South Korea, just as other countries, we have a huge impact of social media on the ways people form their thoughts and perception[s],” South Korean junior psychology major Myunghee Gina Shin said. “Therefore, it would be ideal for us to handle it in the most strict manner, yet it always faces difficulties since people with power control social media, and want to control what things either should be on or censored for the sake of their own good.”

Media in other countries are sometimes used as a way or means of expression without government interference, causing the government to be on the defensive side about the information made public.

“How social media is used in this country is highly diffused and very much permeated a culture, but because there … [is] already freedom of expression, people don’t feel like they need to use social media as an underground means of communication in order to avoid government suppression because there isn’t as much of a threat,” Musa said.

YikYakA feature that makes the Yik Yak application different from other social media sites is its ability to allow students to send and receive anonymous messages from people around them. No sign-in or profile is required to use it. The app also has an interactive map that allows people to see where messages are sent from.

According to Yik Yak’s Facebook page, its mission is to “create a feed of what people are saying, thinking and doing around you.”

Here are some of the behaviors students agree not to partake in when they download the app:

  • Defamation, abuse, harassment, stalking, threatening or otherwise violating the legal rights (such as rights of privacy and publicity) of others.
  • Using racially or ethnically offensive language.
  • Discussing or inciting illegal activity.

If users are caught in violation of any of the examples listed, they are subject to account termination, reporting to law enforcement or having their submissions removed without knowing the reasoning behind it.

“The app used to be fun, but now students are using it to make offensive comments and talk about other students and teachers,” junior graphic design major Gabrielle Rodriguez said. “I think it could really cause some problems because people started describing the person they ‘yakked’ about. It makes it easier for others to know who they’re talking about and jump in on the bullying. It really defeats the whole purpose of the app being for anonymous use with a bully-free environment.”

According to the company’s website: “Yik Yak may report to law enforcement authorities any actions that may be illegal, and any reports it receives of such conduct. When legally required or at Yik Yak’s discretion, Yik Yak will cooperate with law enforcement agencies in any investigation of alleged illegal activity on the services or on the Internet.”

Given the difficulties of trying to block or stop students from downloading the app, APU administrators are instead choosing to provide informational discussions on the potentially destructive uses of Yik Yak.


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