Donald Trump has been permanently removed from Twitter, among other social media sites, following his encouragement of the attempted coup on the 6th of January in which the Capitol building was invaded and five died — four rioters and one Capitol Police officer, Brian Sicknick.
Many of his supporters on Twitter have promised to abandon the site in favor of Parler, though the latter will no longer be hosted by Amazon or available on Apple or Google app stores, resulting in discussions about the return to prominence of MySpace or of a boost in sites like Gab and Minds. Where the Trump wing of the right might go after that when those companies find themselves threatened with being kicked off hosting systems if they permit the same types of speech that Trump and company gave out for years is for computer experts to speculate about, but I will predict that the conversations will occur increasingly in the darker parts of the Internet, walling off in an echo chamber thoughts that would be best confronted in the open.
But what about the decision to ban Trump? As a supporter of free speech, can I agree with this choice?
Yes. I will not bury my answer, though I will go on to defend it. But yes, Trump’s speech was not protected by the currently applicable standards.
Under the First Amendment, people expressing themselves within U.S. jurisdiction have broad protections, but there are some limits. These center around restrictions against using someone else’s speech without permission, against committing a criminal act through speech — engaging in a conspiracy to commit a crime or sexually exploiting someone who has not given consent through the distribution of child pornography, for example — or against knowingly making false claims of fact that defame another. And then there is the crime of sedition, which in terms of speech involves advocating the overthrow of the government or conspiracy to carry out that objective.
Donald Trump has done a lot of those. He asked the Georgia Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, to change the votes of that state’s election. He challenged the ability of a judge to be fair in a case involving Trump University because the judge was the son of parents who immigrated from Mexico. And of most immediate application, his repeated attacks on the electoral process, leading up to his statements at the rally he held on the 6th in D.C. are, in the judgment of several prosecutors, something that result in criminal charges for incitement to violence.
These are but a few examples of his speech over many years. His attacks on the Central Park Five came in 1989 and did not stay in the 80s. He spent much of Barack Obama’s time in office pushing bogus claims about the president’s place of birth. The U.S. legal system has a great many obstacles with regard to prosecuting criminal or civil cases against speech, but Trump has crossed the line many times, and he has been the beneficiary of the fact that pursuing him has not been seen as worth the trouble — so far. But that should not give him the sense that everything he has said was protected speech.
What, then, about social media? As has been pointed out many times, companies like Twitter are not government entities. As corporations, they are the property of their shareholders, and legally, they can decide what is allowed on their platforms. The attitude among Trump’s supporters about what Twitter has done to their leader is hypocritical, based on what they have told me time and time again. It is an article of faith among the economic right wing that capitalists should be free to act as they wish. If a baker does not wish to make a cake for the wedding of a gay couple, that is the entrepreneur’s right. If workers want higher wages, they are free to seek employment elsewhere. If a golf club only wants white men to wander their fields, so be it. But if Twitter decides that some speech is not permissible, when that includes the spewings of the Dear Leader, the corporation must be regulated.
To be fair, Trumpism is not the economic libertarianism of the Republican Party over the last many decades. The party’s elected politicians have tried to hold a middling stance between the fascist and business blocs of their supporters with varying degrees of success, but at this point, they will have to decide whether their god gave Twitter the right to remove Trump or gave Trump the right to promote hatred and sedition wherever he pleases. A laissez-faire ideology that makes exceptions when favored persons do not get their way loses the high ground of consistency.
My view is that social media should be regulated to guarantee freedom of speech among users and protection of the corporations against liability for what is said on their platforms. These websites have become the modern agora, a primary venue for political discourse. They have asked for this role, and as such, they should not be allowed to censor speech that they or their advertisers find offensive. But when a user engages in speech that is beyond the pale of First Amendment protections, that person certainly should be subject to being removed from the platform.
Donald Trump claims to be of sound mind. This means that he knew what he was doing and had the capacity to figure out the consequences. I take no pleasure in silencing anyone. When that is necessary, it should be done with restraint and regret. But social media companies and society are not obligated to allow repeated acts of criminal speech, and the removal of Trump was appropriate.