What ‘Bridgerton’ Teaches Us About Constitutional Law

It makes more sense than you might think.

My, what a delicious idea. Netflix.
“If anyone shall reveal the circumstances of this match, it is I.” (Image: Netflix)

“This author finds herself compelled to share the most curious of news.” So states Lady Whistledown, in her sing-songy soprano voiceover, in the first episode of Netflix’s runaway Regency romp, Bridgerton.

The non de plume-protected author is reading from her own astoundingly popular Lady Whistledown’s Society Papers, a self-published gossip rag that’s feared and revered in equal measure by the aristocratic set as they undergo mating season, or social season, or whatever it is they call it. In the ton, each lord and lady hangs on Whistledown’s every word, eagerly awaiting the paper’s morning delivery, which really makes me miss newsstand sales.

To call the period drama popular is a vast understatement. Bridgerton is the streaming platform’s biggest original series ever. Four weeks after the show premiered on December 25, it was watched by a record 82 million households, a Netflix VP announced on the site’s blog. It hit the top 10 in every country except Japan, and it hit no. 1 in 83 countries. Yes, 83 countries. (To save you the google, there are 195 of those.)

I first saw these numbers in Adweek’s Morning Media Newsfeed, which I read most days. The story just below the Bridgerton post had this headline: “Pew: 78% of Republicans Disagree with Social Platforms Banning Donald Trump.”

The newsletter’s bullet points are technically unconnected stories. But in this case, it struck me how well Bridgerton’s domination and the Pew Research Center survey seemed to go together, and how much one can inform the other. Your grace?

Curiously, the early 19th century inhabitants of Shonda Rhimes’ English alternate universe seem to understand the principles of the 1st amendment better than many modern day Americans. Never mind the fact that the English are not governed by the U.S. Constitution and are kind of indirectly responsible for the creation of it, which was basically against them. How is this possible?

We all know the 1st amendment is the “freedom of speech” one (and the freedom-of-a-bunch-of-other-things one, too). Specifically: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

When it comes to those who believe social platforms should not have banned Trump following his repeated breaking of the platforms’ policies—that’s 41% of all the 10,334 U.S. adults surveyed regardless of political affiliation—I’ve found there are a few key points to their argument: 1) that social media companies should not be allowed to censor individuals’ viewpoints, 2) that in doing so, these companies are taking away the right to freedom of speech, and 3) that social media platforms would have been really fun to have around in the ton, circa 1813.

Why don’t we cut to the chase on the first point: Censorship, in a legal context, can only be “censorship” if it’s done by the government. As the Regency era set seems to inherently grasp, there is no such thing as censorship by a private entity. That means that Twitter not allowing someone to say something that violates the terms it has set for its own publishing platform on its own publishing platform technically can’t be censorship.

Perhaps we are confused by this because the disinformation mess we’re currently mired in is partially due to the fact these companies either haven’t been setting editorial standards or have not been consistently enforcing them. But I digress, ladies and gentlemen, and must insist that we return to Bridgerton.

Let’s say that Daphne Bridgerton, the opinionated young woman that she is, decides she would like to make an announcement in Lady Whistledown’s Society Papers that a young lady should be allowed to be alone in a garden, unaccompanied by a chaperone, at anytime of day or night, no matter if a hot duke is in the vicinity or not. (Heavens!) Is Lady Whistledown required to grant Daphne the space in her newsletter to do so? Of course not.

Now, let’s go a step further and say that Lady Whistledown has decided to turn her newsletter into more of an editorial operation in which she solicits articles from third parties and even runs an opinion section. Daphne picks up her quill to produce a heartfelt op-ed entitled “A Lady Should Be Permitted to Wander Alone Into a Garden at Eventide Unaccompanied by her Eldest Brother No Matter the Proximity of the Hot Duke of Hastings and, Even if the Lady and the Duke Shall Decide to Embrace, the Hot Duke Shall Not Be Challenged to a Duel by the Lady’s Eldest Brother at Risk of Death and, the Lady and her Heretofore Unblemished Family Shall Not Be Forever Shamed Lest the Lady Marry the Duke Despite His Alleged Infertility,” and submits her thought piece to “Dear Editor at Lady Whistledown’s Society Papers.” Daphne being Daphne, her grammar is spotless, her argument well thought out, her assertions even sourced—i.e., her article is eminently publishable. In this case, are Daphne’s rights violated if Lady Whistledown decides not to publish the piece?

You bet your ball-of-the-season invitation they’re not! Why would Lady Whistledown be required to publish Daphne’s thoughts, regardless of their merits as scandalous drivel or enlightened progression, in her privately funded and maintained enterprise? If she were required to do so, who might make her do such a thing? The queen? Might not that be problematic?

Further, why would Lady Whistledown be required to publish a single word from anyone she didn’t want to? (Or publish at all for that matter?) Why would one consider it their inherent right to publish their thoughts in someone else’s private paper, whether they aligned with the platform’s prevailing viewpoints or not? Why, indeed!

If Medium were to decide that this author’s argument, no matter how impeccable, failed to meet its standards, doth this author protest? She doth not. (Though she might feel sad that she doth wasted an afternoon writing it…which one might argue she has doth regardless, but again, digression shall not place us upon thy sidelines during the dance…doth.)

Thus, this author doth rest her extremely sensical case…unless the queen decides to shutter Whistledown’s operation and jail its namesake. Because then this author might say, “Call in that which is mightier than the sword; the time is nigh to exercise the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

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Magazine Publishing Veteran | Bylines with WaPo, WSJ, Marie Claire, Us Weekly | Founder of Shirley Books https://shirleybooks.substack.com/subscribe

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