Can Congress Ban TikTok?

“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.”
First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

When James Madison set about to draft the Bill of Rights – the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution – he was articulating what lawyers and philosophers and judges call “negative rights.” A positive right grants a privilege, like a driver’s license. A negative right restrains the government from interfering with a preexisting right. In order to emphasize his view that the freedom of speech preexisted the government, Madison insisted that the word “the” precede “freedom of speech” in the First Amendment.

If the freedom of speech preceded the government, where did it come from?

Speech is a natural right; it comes from our humanity. The framers of the Constitution and the ratifiers of the Bill of Rights understood and recognized this. Congress doesn’t grant the freedom of speech; rather it is prohibited absolutely from interfering with it. In the years following the ratification of the 14th Amendment, the courts began applying the restrictions in the First Amendment to the states and their municipalities and subdivisions.

Today, the First Amendment bars all government – federal, state and local – and all branches of government – legislative, executive and judicial – from interfering with the freedom of speech.

You’d never know this listening to Congress today. The same Congress that can’t balance a budget or count the number of foreign military bases the feds own, that thinks it can right any wrong and tax any event, that has borrowed over $34 trillion and not paid back any of it; the same Congress now wants to give the President of the United States – whomever might occupy that office – the lawful power to suppress websites he thinks are spying on their users or permitting foreign governments to influence what folks see on the sites. All this is an effort to ban the popular website for young folks called TikTok and force its owners to sell its assets.

Here is the backstory.

Throughout American history, we have suffered from mass fears. In the 1790s, it was fear of the French and of Native Americans. In the 1860s, it was fear of African Americans and fear of Confederates. In the 1900s, it was fear of anarchists, Nazis and Communists. In the first quarter of the present century, the government has whipped up fear of terrorists, Russians, Saddam Hussein, Vladimir Putin and now the Chinese.

In his dystopian novel, “1984,” George Orwell analyzed the totalitarian mind and recognized the need that totalitarians have for fear and hatred. They know that when folks are afraid, they will bargain away the reality of liberty for the illusion of safety. Without fear and hatred, totalitarians have fewer tools for control of the population.

What is the government’s problem with TikTok? The feds want to use fear and hatred of the Chinese government in order to regulate the sources of data and information that Americans can consult. They have projected upon the government of China the very same unlawful and unconstitutional assaults on natural rights that the feds themselves perpetrate upon us.

Thus, in order to gain control over the American public, the deep state – the parts of the government that do not change, no matter which political party is in power – and its friends in Congress have advanced the myth that the Chinese government, which commands the loyalty of the owners of TikTok, might use the site to pass along misinformation or to spy on its users. The key word here is “might,” as the intelligence officials who testified to Congress on this were unable to produce any solid evidence – just fear – that the Chinese government is doing this.

You can’t make this up.

Remember the bumper stickers from the 1970s: “Don’t steal. The government hates competition!” I thought of that line when analyzing this. Why? Because the federal government itself spies on every American who uses a computer or mobile device. The federal government itself captures every keystroke touched on every device in the U.S. The federal government itself captures all data transmitted into, out of and within the U.S. on fiber-optic cables. And the federal government itself told the Supreme Court earlier this week that it needs to be able to influence what data is available on websites in order to combat misinformation.

The federal government basically told the court that it – and not individual persons – should decide what we can read and from what sources. What the federal government did not reveal is its rapacious desire to control the free market in ideas.

Now back to the First Amendment.

The principal value underlying the freedom of speech is free will. We all have free will to think as we wish, to say what we think, to read what we want, to publish what we say. And we can do all this with perfect freedom. We don’t need a government permission slip. The whole purpose of the First Amendment is to guarantee this freedom by keeping the government out of the business of speech – totally and completely. This is the law of the land in modern Supreme Court jurisprudence.

Were this not the law, then the government could suppress the speech it hates and fears and support the speech of its patrons. And then the values that underly the First Amendment would be degraded and negated. The government has no moral or constitutional authority to spy on us or to influence our thoughts. Period.

Does the government work for us or do we work for the government? Have we consented to a nullification of free speech in deference to whomever might be living in the White House? Why do we repose the Constitution into the hands of those who subvert it?

Andrew P. Napolitano, a former judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey, is the senior judicial analyst at Fox News Channel. Judge Napolitano has written seven books on the US Constitution. The most recent is Suicide Pact: The Radical Expansion of Presidential Powers and the Lethal Threat to American Liberty. To learn more about Judge Andrew Napolitano, visit


Author: Andrew P. Napolitano

Andrew P. Napolitano, a former judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey, is the senior judicial analyst at Fox News Channel and anchor of FreedomWatch on Fox Business Network. His most recent book, It Is Dangerous To Be Right When the Government Is Wrong, was released in October 2011.