State of the First Amendment Address: What social media can learn from gamers


Genelle Belmas, media law professor at the University of Kansas, delivered the State of the First Amendment Address on Thursday, Nov. 17, on Zoom.

Morgan Loy, Reporter

The annual State of the First Amendment Address took place via Zoom on Thursday, Nov. 17, in celebration of First Amendment rights, hosted and sponsored by the UK Scripps Howard First Amendment Center.

The event began with Erika Engstrom, director of UK’s School of Journalism and Media (JAM), presenting the James Madison Award to Scoobie Ryan, an associate professor and associate director of JAM. This award honors those who champion First Amendment rights.

“Professor Ryan has taught courses in media law and broadcast journalism, and has developed numerous courses that underscore the application of First Amendment principles,” Engstrom said.

Ryan accepted her award and told stories of how she encouraged First Amendment rights inside her classrooms and in her own home.

She said she passed out pocket-size copies of the Bill of Rights to her college students and in high schools. Ryan repeated how important she finds understanding the rights described in the First Amendment to be.

“When someone tells you, ‘you can’t listen to that record,’ ‘you can’t go to that protest,’ ‘you can’t wear that Black Lives Matter t-shirt,’ yes you can,” she said. “The First Amendment says you can.”

In light of JAM offering a new minor in video game design and development, media law professor at the University of Kansas Genelle Belmas delivered the State of the First Amendment Address.

Belams used her lifelong experience in gaming to explain the current state of the First Amendment in the age of social media with an address titled ‘Wizards, Sentinels, and Mods: What Gamers Can Teach Social Media About Free Speech.’

Belmas explained early cases of online gamers taking advantage of the few rules surrounding online interactions. She said that gamers engaging in unacceptable behavior led online communities to begin creating models of self-governance.

Online communities decided they would begin deciphering what types of speech and actions they would tolerate within their platforms, Belmas said. These communities created roles for players, titled sentinels, that would empower those selected to patrol and enforce the codes of conduct.

Sentinels are meant to create better gaming environments. Belmas said gaming communities attempted to balance protecting their players from harm and free speech rights.

She explained her interest in learning if social media could regulate itself similarly to how gaming communities had.

Citing Section 230 of the United States Communications Decency Act, she described how the law protects social media companies from being sued by individuals offended or harmed by content posted by other users on a site. Section 230 designates social media companies as “distributors” and not “publishers” of information.

Belma said courts have broadly interpreted this law and protected social media companies. She said Section 230 is currently under attack by those who believe it has become too widespread in its protections.

“Social media has gotten to be so big that people consider it to be essential to their ongoing lives,” she said. “Social media permits there to be movements, permits things to happen that matter.”

Belmas said these social media websites are private companies not bound by the First Amendment, but the Supreme Court has discussed how the government could regulate social media in the future.

She said she believed there will eventually be a system for social media websites to balance the right of free speech while still defending its users against harmful content.

“There will be something that manages this, I don’t know what it is, but I would like to believe that gaming could help,” she said.

Belmas gave examples of recent online communities that have managed themselves and the content posted within them. She used Wikipedia as an example, acknowledging that even if it is unreliable, it is an example of collaborative moderators who attempt to ensure the validity of their site.

Belma mentioned Mastodon, an online site recently being discussed as an alternative to Twitter, as an example of a decentralized social media site.

She said that this type of self-regulation is helpful when attempting to make a virtual location more engaging and inclusive while securing First Amendment rights.

“That idea of a bottom up management style increases engagement and buy-in from the community as a shared responsibility between the platform and its users,” she said. “Make it an environment that’s supportive, helpful, useful and non-hateful.”