There's a ridiculous 'free speech' debate reigniting over Marjorie Taylor Greene's Twitter ban
This week Marjorie Taylor Greene’s personal Twitter account was permanently suspended for disseminating covid misinformation.
This was actually her fifth strike after plenty of warnings. Greene still has access to the public through her congressional account, but that hasn’t stopped people from reigniting the free speech-censorship debate.
Not only do these conversations severely misunderstand how the First Amendment operates, they also underestimate the danger of guaranteeing a platform to dangerous misinformation.
First of all, and I can’t believe this needs to be explained, Twitter and other social media companies are not the government. They literally can’t engage in censorship even if they wanted to.
Losing one’s Twitter account doesn’t stop someone from writing a blog, submitting an op-ed, standing on your roof screaming and holding a sign – or in Greene’s case calling a press conference.
No one is arresting or fining Marjorie Taylor Greene no matter how many covid conspiracy theories she spreads or how much racism or antisemitism she peddles.
Of course if Greene cursed or mimed a sex act during one of her press conferences, she might be fined for violating community standards. Even though, such speech is also protected by the First Amendment.
However, even many who understand that Twitter is a private entity well within its rights to limit Greene’s access still criticize the decision.
The ACLU doesn’t claim it's unconstitutional to ban Greene’s personal account, but they still argue that social media companies like Twitter should be more cautious in limiting political speech.
Arguably, this view is actually anti-democratic in that it would privilege any speech from a politician over someone else’s. We don’t have a debate on the ethics of social media censorship every time a random Twitter user has their account suspended. Why should a politician have more protection to violate the terms of service of a company and spread racism, antisemitism, misinformation or even incitations to violence?
Furthermore even if we grant that people need access to a politician’s tweets, certainly the governmental account should suffice. Historically, the United States has limited political speech in ways that has supported jailing and deporting Jews and communists, but at issue here is giving speech uttered by a politician extra protection, not criminalizing political speech.
Disseminating misinformation and conspiracies is right out of the fascist playbook. Guaranteeing platforms to such speech does not serve democracy. If we privilege political speech, even when false or dangerous, we will only contribute to the growing fascist movement in this country.
Many have expressed concern about the radicalization of white men through memes and Youtube as well as the effect of Fox News on older populations. Conspiracy theories in particular have led to antisemitic, xenophobic and Islamophobic violence in the last few years. While we shouldn’t prosecute disseminating such conspiracies as a criminal matter, we absolutely must consider the ethics of platforming such speech.
The January 6 insurrection was fueled by speech from politicians on social media, particularly Trump’s tweets that ultimately led to his being banned from Twitter and other social media platforms.
Do we really need more evidence that privileging and platforming dangerous speech just because it's from a politician can have dangerous consequences?
Very few constitutional rights are absolute. Free speech has limitations. For example, speech that is meant to incite violence or lawless action is not constitutionally protected.
The test for determining if speech incites violence, and therefore not constitutionally protected, was established in 1969 in Brandeburg v. Ohio. The case considered a speech made at a KKK rally that included racial slurs and advocated “revengeance.” The Supreme Court ruled that the government can limit speech if the speech is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action,” and is “likely to incite or produce such action.”
Additionally, a person can be sued if they engage in libel, slander or defamation. While courts have struck down most laws that impose criminal punishments for speech, civil lawsuits for defamation and limits on media through community standards remain as accepted.
In order to sue for defamation, a plaintiff must prove four elements: a statement made was false but purported to be fact; was published or said to a third person; amounted to negligence; and caused damages to a person or entity.
While Marjorie Taylor Greene didn’t slander a specific person, she was banned from Twitter for essentially lying and spreading dangerously incorrect information about covid and vaccines.
It would be a stretch to say such speech incites violence (even though there have been violent anti vaccine protests), but it is not a stretch to say that such speech has life or death ramifications.
While I am not advocating outlawing speech simply because it can have dangerous consequences, I absolutely do think we need to take the threat of fascist-radicalizing speech seriously.
Additionally, by supporting, or even encouraging, private platforms to enforce stricter limits on such dangerous speech, we can make it harder for the alt-right to recruit new people. Why do they need access to Youtube and Reddit? They are welcome to publish their own newspapers and websites that people can seek out.
Most people objecting to limiting the platforms for extremist misinformation have no problem with enforcing community standards concerning obscenity. Pornography isn’t shown on the news, or on Twitter for that matter, but if you want to see it you can easily seek it out.
If a Fox News program showed pornography or cursed, they would be fined, but we treat blatant lies and conspiracy theories as more protected than obscenity. I would argue limiting “obscenity” actually has consequences for gender performance and sex positivity, but that’s an argument for a different article.
Freedom of speech does not guarantee freedom from consequences or access to a large platform. It is simply a protection against government intrusion.
The debate concerning free speech on internet platforms far too often is focused on the political or partisan nature of the speech rather than considering its truthfulness.
I argue we need a slightly looser defamation standard for social media. If a person says something untrue but as a fact, publicly on social media, negligently and in a way that causes harm, we should support private companies limiting that person’s access to their platform.
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