Earlier today, Twitter briefly suspended the account of Milo Yiannopoulos. Almost immediately, Twitter erupted in protest, with the hashtag #FreeMilo trending. His account was restored less than an hour later, but no explanation was ever provided.
This isn’t the first time Twitter has been suspected of censorship against conservatives, nor will it be the last. Twitter is far from alone: Facebook has been embroiled in scandal about censorship for weeks, while controversy on Reddit recently erupted in the wake of the Orlando shooting. This raises important questions about the differences between the legality of censorship, and the appropriateness of censorship.
The opening text of the First Amendment is well-known to many: “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.” It is important to remember that this specifically applies to Congress — the federal government. It does not make mention of local government, private business, or individual citizens. Any time a controversy regarding free speech is raised, the First Amendment is quickly brought up, often erroneously. The First Amendment does not mean that a company must allow any speech or action regardless of its founders’ beliefs, nor does it mean a church must allow speech contrary to its values. It also does not mean a social networking site such as Twitter must allow any and all speech.
However, as with the other amendments that make up the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment has served as a sort of “guideline” for American free enterprise. A private entity is perfectly free to cater to only one demographic if they so desire, but they risk allegations of racism and public outrage should they do so. There is a reasonable expectation in America that citizens and companies live according to the values the nation was founded upon, even if that expectation is not a legal requirement.
In Abrams v. United States, Oliver Wendell Holmes affirmed the necessity of free speech in American society, establishing the concept of the “marketplace of ideas”: “The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.”
The “marketplace of ideas” is not mandated by government; rather, it is permitted by government. By establishing itself as a guardian of free speech, the federal government encourages American companies and citizens to live out those values. People have a reasonable expectation that they may hold beliefs different from their neighbor and that they may express them as they desire. However, a prudent man would hold his tongue in his neighbor’s house out of respect: Should he violate this, his neighbor might appropriately ask him to leave his house in outrage.
The disconnect between expectation and reality has caused controversy at times. In 2013, Starbucks implemented a soft ban on open carry firearms in its stores. The ban would not be strictly enforced but was perceived as an outright ban by many. As a corporation separate from the federal government, Starbucks was perfectly within its right to do so, even if the wisdom of such a decision was questionable. Other corporations followed suit. The idea that guns should be prohibited in private spaces was an idea proposed by Starbucks — one that they could carry out without reprisal.
Just as Starbucks has the right to ban open carry firearms from its stores, Twitter has the right to censor its users. However, this is a poor excuse for Twitter’s alleged censorship. Twitter is permitted to censor content by law, but whether it is wise to censor content is an entirely different matter — both from a perspective of business and ethics. As a social networking site available to any user regardless of belief, Twitter is not an “exclusive” site for any particular demographic. Users are led to believe they may post what they desire, follow whomever they wish, and interact with others at will. Just as there is no particular expectation of privacy for publicly-posted tweets, users should have no expectation that they will face consequences for content they post, so long as it does not violate local laws or the site’s terms of service. Twitter has, in essence, created its own marketplace of ideas by inviting anyone and everyone to its service.
As with any publicly-available online service, Twitter is governed under its own terms of service and rules for use. These rules are publicly available and open for debate and scrutiny. The rules, in fact, are prefaced with the stipulation that, “We believe in freedom of expression and in speaking truth to power, but that means little as an underlying philosophy if voices are silenced because people are afraid to speak up.” The following rules for behavior on the site are reasonable and follow according to this idea: A user who abuses their right to express their opinion and bullies another person or group will be suspended. A layman interpretation of these rules offers the idea that Twitter is allowing mostly-free speech with exceptions. It’s a balance that provides freedom of expression and protection of that expression.
With more than 300 million active users, Twitter’s user base has grown to nearly the same size as the population of the United States. Twitter, by some perspectives, has grown to be its own quasi-state. It is an entity that is used for sharing ideas and news in real time, which users rely on daily. When Twitter censors the views of Yiannopoulos and other individuals without cause or adherence to its rules, it erodes the foundation of, and destroys faith in, the validity of its rules and the content available through its service.
As an American company, Twitter ought to be promoting the same values of expression that America is founded upon, even if it is not required to. Twitter, by its very nature, is an extension of the marketplace of ideas. It should make every effort to promote and encourage it, not tear it down.
John Rust is a political marketing specialist in the Washington, DC, area, and the editor of Lone Conservative.