There’s something of a storm brewing online right now, over the place of free speech in the present day, and of the validity of free speech on private and non-government platforms; particularly, on social media. Debate and discussion of social activism movements like Black Lives Matter and the modern forms of feminism, the European migrant crisis, and Donald Trump’s rise to notoriety in recent months have brought up many questions on the nature of, and the merit of, a right to free speech. Particularly among young people online, and on college campuses across the US, the notion of restriction of free speech seemed to gain a lot of momentum in 2015. What many who argue in favor of this fail to recognize is how vital and fragile free speech has become.
Now, I personally try to keep lines of demarcation between the different spheres of my social existence. It’s why Twitter is increasingly the home of the hottest of my hot opinions you’ll find online. And that’s just common sense to me: in the same way that I’ll never bring up discussion of politics, religion, or other dissentious topics up at the dinner table or in the workplace, I have set aside my Facebook account and other platforms as safe havens from the tumultuous and divisive world of politics and social debate that seems to dominate the Internet. (To that end, you have no idea how many Facebook pages I’ve filtered from my news feed.) And filtering, blocking, hiding, and other similar tools are a great thing; these tools empower users to tailor their own social experience online, and are particularly good for children and other victims of cyber-bullying and other forms of online harassment.
However, it seems many out there feel that that power doesn’t do enough. It seems that, almost weekly, I hear about attempts to have people blacklisted, banned, fired or compelled to resign from their jobs, or otherwise socially censured on account of political attitudes. Notable victims (yes, victims: more below) are numerous:
- Erika Christakis is a Yale lecturer who came under fire last October for defending the right for students to wear potentially offensive Halloween costumes, and who has since withdrawn from her teaching role, citing a hostile climate on campus. Her husband was perhaps more notably mobbed by students on campus who hurled insults at him and called for his resignation.
- Mizzou president Tim Wolfe was compelled to resign after he became the target of ConcernedStudent1950, a racial-issues group on campus there.
The list goes on. The underlying issue isn’t why these people have been targeted; it can be sufficiently argued in either direction as to whether they deserved what they got in each case. What concerns me is the emergence of what may be best described as Internet headhunters — in each of the above cases, we saw an institution elevated to national attention over a smaller issue blown up to massive proportions by otherwise unaffiliated keyboard warriors. This isn’t an intrinsically bad thing; so called signal boosting has been a driving force for positive social change since the invention of the printing press made it possible. What worries me is that, in many cases, the result has been social censure on a worrying scale.
I’m going to pause for a minute to attempt to reign in a good, twenty-first century description of free speech. The US Constitution has a protection for free speech which appears in various forms in the legal codes of most post-industrial nations:
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; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
This is very, very frequently mistaken as a definition of free speech, or as a law providing free speech to citizens. The opposite is true – the First Amendment and its global permutations define free speech as a freedom, as a right. Then, they go on to define a concept of protected speech: that is, speech that is guaranteed to be “free” and unabated by the government. Protected speech has a checkered history in the US, with laws like the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the Espionage acts, which objectively outlawed criticism of government, went unchecked for decades by the Supreme Court. But by the Vietnam War, the preceding SCOTUS decisions were instead interpreted as land grabs for purposes of national security, and the “clear and present danger” test went on to protect anti-government speech in cases where it did not pose a credible threat to the government. Beyond that, protected speech excludes defamation (lying about another person with malicious intent), credible threats of violence, and other minor exceptions. The bottom line, however, is this:
- Offensive speech is legal and protected.
- Satirical speech is legal and protected.
- Inflammatory speech is legal and protected.
- Racist, sexist, homophobic and hateful speech is legal and protected.
That’s the way it is in the US and in much of the West. Deal with it, or go fight to have it changed if you don’t like it. But, as it stands now, government bodies are prevented by law from punishing individuals for any of the above.
But there’s a catch. More and more, the medium of our speech has been through proprietary spaces — through social media. Twitter, Facebook, Google, Apple and the rest are not government bodies, and are not bound by these restrictions.
Enter Milo Yiannopoulos. At the time of writing, the #1 trending hashtag on Twitter in the US is #JeSuisNero. Earlier this week, Milo, tech editor at Breitbart, was temporarily banned from the social media service, only to be inexplicably reinstated roughly 30 minutes later. Then, today, Milo was stripped of his “verified” status and was threatened in writing with permanent suspension by the Twitter staff should his violations of the site’s rules continue.
I’ve been sat on the naughty table! pic.twitter.com/2ppJ3X4J62
— Milo Yiannopoulos (@Nero) January 8, 2016
At time of writing, Twitter has not elaborated on what the rule violations were. However, it’s probable that the site’s staff will cite a publicity stunt Milo was pulling in the days prior, in which he claimed to be Buzzfeed’s new Social Justice Editor [Link NSFW]. A casual look at Milo’s Twitter and Facebook pages, or anything he’s published on Breitbart gives a distinct first impression — that of an outspoken alt-right conservative with a penchant for the outrageous. Regardless of the merit of any of his rhetoric or assertions, it seems only natural that he would incur the wrath of the young, largely progressive, left-leaning demographic that dominates both Twitter and, to some extent, the Internet as a whole. His supporters in the #JeSuisMilo hashtag seek to stand in solidarity and to protest a perceived bout of ideological censorship. For context, below is my string of tweets on #JeSuisMilo:
yes, even the guy trying his hardest to get attention by spewing what Milo spews has the right to. “‘Fire’ in a crowded theater” was (1/2)
— ~/.tim/wojak.jpg (@timedsteele) January 9, 2016
a tactic used to suppress free speech under the guise of defeating Communism. Was co-opted by religious orgs, politicians, et. al. (2/3) — ~/.tim/wojak.jpg (@timedsteele) January 9, 2016
Now, like then, anti-“hatespeech” stands to be used as means to nefarious ends in the same way. It’s crucial that free speech is preserved.
— ~/.tim/wojak.jpg (@timedsteele) January 9, 2016
Ernesto Miranda, a literal kidnapper and rapist, but whose initial defense has guaranteed the right to legal counsel for millions since(2/?) — ~/.tim/wojak.jpg (@timedsteele) January 9, 2016
In the same way, western citizens have an obligation to stand up for the free speech rights of even the most offensive, undeserving people.
— ~/.tim/wojak.jpg (@timedsteele) January 9, 2016
Time will tell whether Twitter will give Milo the boot, and if so, what their reasoning will be. But this is only the latest in a worrying pattern, in which social media platforms practice a form of censorship on their userbases. This would be illegal if done by a government body. And, in my mind, that prompts an important question: As our speech is increasingly taking place on private platforms, does the right to free speech extend to these platforms?
I don’t have an answer — this issue falls squarely between two of my strongest political principles: that the fundamental purpose of government is to defend human rights and civil liberties, which include the right to free speech in all its forms, and that the government has no right to meddle with private individuals and institutions in a way that infringes on those same rights. On one hand, under current US law, Twitter and the other Internet giants have the means to enact an unbelievable degree of ideological censorship, such that dissenting opinions on any given issue can be effectively removed from the majority of the Internet, with no legal recourse. But on the other hand, the billions of social media users out there are effectively guests in the homes of these entities, and they are entirely within their rights to enforce any community standards or similar codes of conduct if they so choose.
I implore all of you to consider this question as well. I didn’t choose Milo “#FeminismIsCancer” “Trump 2016” Yiannopoulos as an example by accident. If you, reader, are an advocate of free speech, then you ought to be willing to defend the free speech of everyone from Milo and Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders and Bahar “#KillAllWhiteMen” Mustafa.
And regardless of the legality of social media censorship, I oppose any actions taken by Facebook and Twitter to censor users based on any sociopolitical attitudes. I hope you do, too, but I won’t try to get you banned if you don’t.
I’ll close with an excellent comic defending free speech, in response to Randall “xkcd” Munroe’s attack on the concept.