President Trump and his supporters are crying foul after social media companies like Twitter banned him from using their platforms. They’re complaining that this is unfair and illegal censorship, which means that a review of the topic would be helpful.
Start with a definition. Censorship is the act of reviewing any form of communication “for the purpose of suppressing parts deemed objectionable on moral, political, military, or other grounds,” as the Dictionary.com website put it.
Censorship is most powerful when a government uses it. This can be a local school board banning “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” because of the book’s language that is offensive to modern readers, or the federal government restricting battlefield information during wartime.
But broadly speaking, there’s not a whole lot of government censorship in America any more. That’s the Constitution’s First Amendment in action. It says governments cannot restrict the freedom of speech.
Most censorship is self-imposed by the people who create the communication. Examples include the movie industry’s morals code from the 1930s to the 1950s, and the decision by most newspapers and broadcasters to avoid foul language or extremely violent imagery so as not to offend their customers.
The problem is what happens when the communications middleman gets removed, and anybody can say whatever they want with no fear of retribution or a lawsuit. This is exactly what’s been going on with social media for years.
If there is anyone who has thrived from a lack of speech restriction, it is the president. He’s used Twitter to promote himself — first his TV show and now his administration — to denigrate his opponents, to fire his secretary of state and others, and to sell his image as a tough guy to his millions of fans. Clearly, it worked.
But last week’s trashing of the U.S. Capitol flipped an online switch. Twitter banned the president, fearing he will use the service to incite violence when Joe Biden is sworn into office.
Twitter’s decision is not censorship. It is not the government preventing someone from speaking out. It is a private company deciding it no longer wishes to allow someone to use its services. There’s a big difference.
Every newspaper, every radio station, every television broadcaster commits a form of censorship every day when it decides not to pay attention to information it has received. This decision might be for space or time limitations, or the judgment that the information will not interest its audience. In every case, it is the communicator’s First Amendment right not to use the information. The sender has no legal right to demand that it be used.
It’s the same thing with social media. The president is certainly the highest-profile person that Twitter has banned. But just as this newspaper gets to decide what information goes onto its pages, Twitter gets to decide who can use its platform.
There’s really no debate about this. Trump fans can complain that Twitter or any other company is being unfair, and that may be true. But the First Amendment does not require fairness in its protections of speech and media rights.
As for Trump and anyone else determined to speak their piece, the lesson from this episode is that if you truly want no restrictions, you have to control the message. The president could do just that by starting or purchasing a television channel or a social media platform.
Most likely, Twitter and other social media companies are taking action because they worry the government will make them liable for the content people put on their platform. They need to worry: If last week proved anything, it’s that the social media volume is out of control.