Last week, as Twitter permanently banned Trump from its platform, critics from the right have been quick to blame a “leftist” culture within tech companies for a crackdown on free speech. That is not without its contradictions – many people have expressed concerns about the decision, including Alexei Navalny and Angela Merkel. But it does raise an uncomfortable issue: in recent years, the conversation around free speech – and arguments to protect it – have been dominated by the right.
So what do experts make of it – and should liberals try and reclaim the value for themselves? We asked five defenders of free speech to weigh in.
Ben Wizner, director, ACLU speech and privacy project; counsel to Edward Snowden
Is Trump a good example of where free speech should be limited? One of the challenges about free speech is that almost everyone thinks they know what it means; they’re sure it applies to their own speech; and equally sure that it doesn’t apply to speech they consider offensive or dangerous. But when we talk about free speech as a regulatory matter, someone has to be the great arbiter. People pointed to the rise of a bigot like Trump as a justification for curtailing free speech, while ignoring the reality that if we did begin to roll back first amendment rights, Trump would be at the top of the enforcement structure.
So you don’t think Trump should have been banned from Twitter sooner? If Trump had only communicated to the public through White House press channels that were heavily edited, redacted and managed, we would have known a lot less about who he was. His visceral, impulsive tweets ended up being important evidence in lawsuits that we (the ACLU) and others brought against him. We were able to show courts that the motivations behind his policies were not what his lawyers pretended they were. [Keeping him on Twitter for so long] was really in the public interest.
How do we move forward? Facebook has 2.5bn users. If it had 2m users, I wouldn’t care about its moderation policies. If it was just for people who were very interested in yarn, there would be no basis whatsoever for me to tell them what their standards should be. But the fact that it has become the dominant platform for certain kinds of debate means we all have a stake. We need to use the law to prevent companies from consolidating that amount of power over our public discourse. That does not mean regulation of content. It would mean enforcing our anti-trust laws in the US. We should never have allowed a handful of companies to achieve the market dominance they have over such important public spaces.
Suzanne Nossell, CEO of Pen America
How do you feel about social media platforms having the right to decide who says what? While I believe the government should not be legislating what can and can’t be published on a platform like Twitter, we need far more robust protections for the public in terms of transparency: how these decisions are made, what the rules are, what the basis of adjudication is in an individual instance.
If you have a valid claim that you shouldn’t have been kicked off, there really is no recourse; often an appeal can go into a black hole, people can’t get answers and don’t even know what rule they are accused of violating. There needs to be a robust process accessible to people in real time.
How involved should the government be, exactly? One analogy is financial regulation, where there are elaborate disclosure agreements. These are private companies – investment banks, commercial banks – but there are meticulous obligations in terms of public accountability. Social media companies should be required to make public how their algorithms are configured, what kinds of content is disappearing and when, what gets amplified and propagated across the network and why.
The contention between opposing ideas is a catalyst to get to the truth
Do people know what free speech is anymore? I worry that many Americans are confused and under-informed. You see people arguing that Tump’s ban from Twitter, or not publishing Josh Hawley, constitutes first amendment violations – but that’s just completely baseless. People tend to be unfamiliar with what the exceptions and limitations are to the first amendment, and in many ways have lost sight of why we protect free speech.
Which is … ? The contention between opposing ideas is a catalyst to get to the truth. If people can call into question your claims and bring to light contrary evidence, that pushes forward debate. Free speech promotes tolerance and civil engagement. It is part of individual autonomy and how each of us expresses our identities. It’s an underpinning for artistic achievements, for scientific progress, for economic prosperity.
Branko Marcetic, writer and author, Jacobin magazine
What’s the leftwing case for free speech? Censorship – and any type of oppression, really – always begins by targeting particularly unsympathetic people, those who it is uncontroversial to censor. But once you set that precedent, inevitably, the bounds of what is considered acceptable or wrong always ends up expanding.
Those censoring are liable to political pressure. They may want to temper criticism or ingratiate themselves with a new regime. When Facebook started factchecking due to concerns about fake news, some of the fact checkers that got on board were from rightwing news outlets like the Weekly Standard, a long-standing neo-conservative magazine, and the Daily Caller, Tucker Carlson’s old media entity.
There were several instances where fact checkers from those outlets “factchecked” stories where there was strong disagreement [about their conclusions]. And in 2017, when Germany purged some violent far-right websites, it also took off a leftwing website because it was an anti-capitalist website. That’s an attempt to look even handed so it does not look like you are merely prosecuting the right.
So how should we feel abut the Trump twitter ban? Trump didn’t really incite the violence via Twitter – he tweeted, but people saw that speech on TV. There is so much focus on social media companies, when arguably the media most important for Trump’s rise was television and the massive amount of earned media and free media he got in 2015 and 2016. . It was on conservative news outlets that he said the election was being stolen. Even without a Twitter account, the president is going to be able to go on TV. So, if we believe he should be banned from Twitter surely he should be banned from TV too?
Censorship – and any type of oppression, really – always begins by targeting particularly unsympathetic people
How is the curtailment of free speech used against minorities?
Look at how hate speech has been used against Palestinians, who are agitating for their rights and freedoms against the Israeli government. That has been very cynically used – people have been claiming antisemitism or saying that the speech is violent or out of bounds. In the same way there have been people on Facebook who were taken off social media for expressing – they didn’t do anything – language around the police which came across as violent or threatening. Similar hate speech laws or legislation have been used against people of color if they say something offensive to a police officer.
Jameel Jaffer, director, Knight First Amendment Institute
Is free speech the preserve of the right? No, but the courts have shifted to the right so it seems that way. The first amendment libertarian justices are enthusiastic about is much more concerned with the rights of, for example, corporations and political donors than it is about the rights of political dissidents or whistleblowers.
So the right doesn’t support all versions of the first amendment? Many on the left see the first amendment as not protecting them. When it came to the Black Lives Matters protests, the first amendment seemed to do very little to prevent government officials making their lives difficult and even dangerous; it seemed to be absent when journalists were arrested during those protests and yet it is available to neo-Nazis who want to hold a rally in Charlottesville. That’s not an entirely unjustified critique.
What would life look like without the first amendment? As terrible as Trump’s administration has been for the first amendment, things would have been immeasurably worse without it. There were lines he couldn’t possibly cross – lines that don’t exist elsewhere. Trump says journalists are enemies of the state; the next step in other countries is they can be rounded up and arrested for their journalism. This can’t happen here. When he kicked reporters out of the White House press briefing, the supreme court ruled he violated the first amendment. We take that for granted, and we shouldn’t.
Joan Donovan, sociologist, Harvard Kennedy School
Does Trump being banned from Twitter have anything to do with free speech?
It’s a different question than free speech. Any hesitation from platform companies realizing what it is that they have built – and the years of focusing on growth over community protection and safety – has led us here. Any attempts to disrupt the infrastructure that this Maga movement has built is so they cannot mount a second attack during the inauguration – this is big, this is different. This moment is going to be one of the most important moments in internet history because it only happened through years of inaction.
It’s about prosecuting crimes? Yes. Alongside the imagery of guns and talk of this “being our 1776”, [the attack on the Capitol] was a direct threat to journalists and Congress members.
Many years ago, I was part of a punk rock message board where someone said they wanted to kill George Bush. The FBI showed up to his little apartment. That was the reality back then. If you threatened somebody online and the FBI found out about it, you got a personal visit. So there is reason for alarm when platforms consider [threats of violence] to be within the realm of free speech. Fantasizing that Mike Pence would be arrested and executed – that should have consequences.
How do you balance the rights of people over the need to hear from the president?
Trump is the sitting president, so he’s not some private individual who is using social media to say “we need to hold these corrupt governors and politicians to account”. He is a politician and there are many avenues through which he can seek legal recourse for the allegations [that the election was fraudulent] and he did all of that, and lost. Platform companies provide anyone and everyone with the infrastructure to reach potentially millions all at once. When that power is utilized by people with enormous political importance [to overturn an election], it is oppression.