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This question was prompted by the headline on October 15, 2020 that the Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on whether to subpoena the CEO of Twitter for suppressing certain political content. This led me to wonder whether or not social media companies in the US can legally curate user content however they want. This has been asked on the site, and the answer seems to be that they can (with the possible exception of state law in California).

So if Twitter has not violated any federal laws, it led me to wonder if it is constitutional for the CEO to be subpoenaed by congress? Can congress compel any person or company to appear before them for any reason? Or do they need to state some probable cause that laws have been broken in order to do so? If he wanted to challenge the subpoena, would this CEO have a valid argument (ignoring political considerations)?

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Congress can compel any person or company to appear before them for any reason: this article and this more extensive review give overviews of Congressional subpoena power. Watkins v. United States, 354 U.S. 178 affirms the power of Congress to investigate matters that could bear on the actions of Congress, but also draws lines on what kinds of questions can be asked.

It is unquestionably the duty of all citizens to cooperate with the Congress in its efforts to obtain the facts needed for intelligent legislative action. It is their unremitting obligation to respond to subpoenas, to respect the dignity of the Congress and its committees, and to testify fully with respect to matters within the province of proper investigation. This, of course, assumes that the constitutional rights of witnesses will be respected by the Congress as they are in a court of justice. The Bill of Rights is applicable to investigations as to all forms of governmental action. Witnesses cannot be compelled to give evidence against themselves. They cannot be subjected to unreasonable search and seizure. Nor can the First Amendment freedoms of speech, press, religion, or political belief and association be abridged.

Congress has the power to enact laws (and it not charged with the duty to investigate federal crimes, which is in the domain of the executive branch). So if Congress wants to find out whether they should pass a law, they can subpoena people and ask them questions. In the case of Watkins, an individual was interrogated regarding his personal life. He refused to answer, stating that "I do not believe that such questions are relevant to the work of this committee nor do I believe that this committee has the right to undertake the public exposure of persons because of their past activities". The Supreme Court concluded that while it is an offense to refuse to answer questions "pertinent to the question under inquiry", the Court could not figure out with reasonable certainty what the inquiry was about. BTW the holdings section of this opinion (in 1957) ranges a-y, which is a remarkably nuanced and non-committal collection of holdings, which can be summarized by saying that the court found the question to likely be "off-topic".

If Congress wants to contemplate passing a law to restrict Twitter, it can subpoena anyone it wants to. There is an unresolved question regarding subpoenaing the executive branch (specifically, the role of executive privilege, where POTUS can shift the burden of proof to Congress to establish their right to interrogate the executive branch).

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  • TL;DR: Yes, Congress can pointlessly waste your time with a subpoena.
    – EvilSnack
    Oct 15 '20 at 23:14

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