Some of you may not know, but the U.S. Army has an esports team. It streams on Twitch, manages a Discord channel and competes in tournaments. Lately things have been a bit turbulent for the military on these social media platforms. Last week, they banned viewers who wrote comments about U.S. war crimes (from its streaming channel). The ban leads to the question: has the U.S. Army Violated the First Amendment by silencing viewers on Twitch?
Let’s rewind. In 2018, the military didn’t meet its recruiting goals. This was mainly due to a low unemployment rate nationwide. Since then, the Army created an esports team to work as a potential recruiting tool. Considering 60% of Americans play video games every day and that young gamers are the majority of the industry, it is easy to see why the Army would want to get involved. Portraying the Army as a modern and a gamer institution is a must to reach the people the Army wants to reach.
However, because of social media’s characteristics, government message is a two-way communication with the public. Citizens are able to respond and interact almost immediately. This makes it way harder for any government officials to avoid criticism.
This is exactly what’s been happening with the Army Esports team. Last week viewers started asking questions about U.S. war crimes, which led to them being banned. According to Vera Eidelman, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, this is a violation of the First Amendment’s free speech protection. The provision states:
“The First Amendment guarantees freedom of expression by prohibiting Congress from restricting the press or the rights of individuals to speak freely.”
Twitch does indeed allow users to moderate their channels as they see fit. According to Twitch’s FAQ on bans and suspensions, “Channel owners and moderators are free to ban anyone from their channel, regardless of the reason.”
So has the Army violated the First Amendment or not? From my point of view, yes. The military is choosing to be a part of a platform to engage the public and to recruit young viewers.
When the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that President Trump blocking journalists on Twitter was unconstitutional, precedent was made that private platforms like Twitter and Facebook are deemed public spaces when used by government officials.
It is clear that a regular streamer can ban viewers from their channel indiscriminately. However, this rule does not apply to the U.S. Army’s channel. While Twitch is a private company, the Army Esports team is made of government actors and they are entering into a public space. Therefore, they should be subject to the same First Amendment principles that any other branch of government is subjected to.