As of January 8, 2021, the President of the United States has been banned or suspended from Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitch, and most notably Twitter. The removal of a sitting President’s access to social media platforms is, to say the least, unprecedented in recent American history.
Many people are of course cheering these decisions in light of President Trump’s often reckless and irresponsible rhetoric. Let me be among the first to say that I have often found President Trump’s words and tweets to be hateful, irresponsible, petty, and deeply troubling.
This article is not about defending Donald Trump, nor am I questioning the right of private entities to make their own policies. It would be nice if such entities were consistent in their stated policies, but private companies should generally have a right to moderate content as they see fit.
My purpose in posting this article is to encourage my fellow Americans to consider the issue of speech itself in twenty-first-century America.
How much should speech be regulated?
And by whom?
Obviously, we have a need to protect children from predators, and serious issues and questions regarding libel, harassment, and the advocacy of criminal activity warrant serious discussion and consideration.
What’s more, words are powerful. And irresponsible, reckless words can cause harm — directly or indirectly. I’m not insensitive to the dangers. We saw the dangers of reckless speech play out in our nation’s capital on January 6.
We must take care, though, that the medicine isn’t worse than the disease.
In an age where online social media platforms have effectively become America’s “public square,” are we comfortable with several large corporations deciding what voices have access to the public square?
Are we comfortable with companies like Google having a decisive say in what information Americans can access?
Are we okay with companies like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube (the latter of course owned by Google) deciding which voices we the people should hear and which should be silenced?
And are we, as Americans, comfortable with such companies even deciding they can limit our access to our own President?
Once again, I’m not defending the actions or words of President Trump, but if Twitter can ban President Trump, they can do so with President Biden.
Or the next President after that.
And they can ban you.
Either we believe in free speech or we do not.
And if we are going to say that it’s okay to limit certain forms of speech, then what forms? What speech is it okay to limit?
Hate speech, you say? Well, what is “hate speech”? And who decides?
The “victim” of hate speech should decide, you say? Well, in that case, are we giving any offended party the right to effectively shut down any speech or personality that they deem offensive?
To be clear, I favor the right of any individual or organization to issue any statement they wish and/or to respond to whatever statement they wish.
Free speech includes the freedom to disagree, to respond, and/or to choose not to listen. But when you make the decision to not listen for other people, you can’t claim to stand for free speech. You are, in that case, for controlled speech.
A free society cannot survive in the context of controlled speech.
Yes, freedom carries with it many risks. And that includes free speech.
When a society allows for free speech, that society is allowing for toxic, hateful, destructive, dishonest, and/or irresponsible speech. Those things come with the territory.
But free speech is worth it.
If you suppress speech, then you lose the genuine and free exchange of ideas as well as the ability for people to truly and authentically live in freedom.
Freedom isn’t free. And it isn’t always pure and clean.
Freedom is messy.
But it’s worth it.