Colgate Hosts 19th Annual Constitution Day Debate Virtually

Sept. 17 marked the 234th anniversary of our nation’s constitution being ratified by 39 “Founding Fathers.” In 2004, Senator Robert Byrd proposed a day of federal observance to commemorate what we now know as “Constitution Day.” 

Colgate annually hosts a Constitution Day debate, inviting scholars of different disciplines to discuss the intersections of constitutional interpretations and pressing modern-day issues. This year, Colgate’s Center for Freedom & Western Civilization and its Forum on Constitutional Government sponsored a debate surrounding “Big Tech & Liberal Democracy: Freedom and Responsibility in the Digital Age.” Leading the debate were Matthew Feeney, director of the Project on Emerging Technologies at CATO Institute, and Adam Candeub, a professor of law at Michigan State Law School.

Mediated by Professor Stanley C. Brubaker of the political science department, the debate focused on the 1996 Communications Decency Act, treatments of media publishers, civil liability laws and how these issues should be interpreted in a modern technological era. Americans statistically spend around seven hours per day consuming and posting internet content; the emphasis on interweb laws and how technology fits within the constraints of constitutional law is more vital than ever. 

The comment that prompted the debate was: “To serve the ends of America’s liberal constitutional democracy, the liability protection of Section 230, as applied to dominant internet platforms, should be coupled with the requirement that these firms not discriminate on the basis of content or the identity of the user.” Feeney debated against this statement, while Candeub proposed a supporting argument. 

Candeub began the discussion by supporting the prompt with examples, followed by his proposed interpretation of Section 230. He emphasized the importance of allowing freedom to openly discuss on the internet without fear of content being censored for reasons of content or identity. He further argued that private institutions such as major social media platforms must not become governments within themselves by overly censoring content. Candeub used examples of Hunter Biden’s leaked emails, noting the censorship of New York Post’s exposeé article: Twitter banned users that linked said post or sent it via direct messages. 

Next, he discussed the once-popular social media platform, Parler. After certain groups began to use Parler to post organized threats of violence, Amazon, Google and Apple united to remove the app from internet and app stores, Google services and Amazon purchases. Do these three institutions hold as much power over the media as the government does? Candeub argued  that the sense of a monopolistic force that these companies hold is similar to the power of the government, and therefore should not be able to discriminate against all users of Parler due to the actions of a certain group using the app for malicious purposes.

“What we are seeing now is something new; we have a much greater concentration on private economic power and cultural schisms,” Candeub said.

Feeney used his opportunity during the debate to explain where he thinks big technology companies can fit into liberalism alongside the Constitution. Feeny explained that people must remember that all citizens hold unique ideas, values and beliefs that form the individualist society behind democracy, and that these sets of morals have a tendency to overlap each other; social media helps citizens find a group of people with like qualities easily. Feeney argued that the protections of Section 230 should be contingent upon these personal views and ideals. Using the example of Biden vs. Knight, he debates the analogy that the internet is similar to a massive railway with multiple stops; users may tailor their experience and utilize big technology for their benefit, and therefore do not associate with the entire internet. Another example Feeny used was the milk crate challenge, popularized in 2021. While not illegal or offensive, it is rather harmful to those who see the challenge and try it for themselves. As technology develops, so do regulations, and consequently, the private companies on the internet should be able to distance themselves from certain trends, in Feeney’s opinion.