Opinion / Politics

Protecting Free Speech – Twitter and the Founders

free speech

Protecting free speech is complex.  It involves understanding American history, overlooked ironies, and a key assumption by the Founders.  Now and again, an eye-popping event triggers a collective “what the heck?” One of those just occurred.  Here is how to make sense of it.

In an exchange emblematic of our hair-pulling times, a Republican congressional candidate, Danielle Stella, tweeted a statement about Minnesota congressional Democrat Ilhan Omar, based on uncorroborated allegations about Omar leaking sensitive information to an adversary. 

The tweet suggested that, if Omar was found guilty of treason, she should face the death sentence.  News accounts reported a second tweet with “a stick-figure being hanged.” 

In response, Omar decried these as “anti-Muslim dog whistles and dehumanization,” blamed “an entire political party and its media outlets,” and suggested they promoted violence.

Twitter – a private social media organization – shut down Stella’s account, inferring they promoted violence. Twitter spokeswoman Aly Pavela said Stella’s campaign and personal accounts were shut down for “repeated violations of the Twitter rules.”

Notably, this event unfolded against the backdrop of public criticism of social media for not responsibly self-policing accounts to avoid promotion of violence, along with false speech.

The response to the response was an uncensored explosion of news around the event – over countless social and mainstream media outlets, from Facebook and the Washington Times, to the Washington Examiner and Washington Post.  Innumerable outlets carried later cycles of debate and mutual recriminations. 

And so, it goes. Americans interested in the issue ask whether the tweets were fair, whether they promoted violence, whether Twitter should have shut down the accounts, whether shutting them down was politically motivated, whether Twitter should be regulated, whether regulation of social media violates free speech, and on and on.

In the end, this incident returns us to three touch stones – history of free speech, overlooked ironies, and that key assumption of the Founders. 

About history:  The Founders deeply distrusted government and disdained prior restraint.  That is why the First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech …” That language is absolute.

Over time, the US Supreme Court has carved out narrow “time, place and manner” exceptions to prevent chaos, violence and societal breakdown.  Still, any government restriction on speech must show “substantial justification” to clip, change, or shut down content.

On the other hand, private media – like Twitter – are not government, even if they represent a virtual “public square.”  The expectation is that they will protect those with access – or affected by – their public square, but also be fair. 

Was the restriction fair?  One could argue yes, if you believe the original tweets promoted or incited violence; one could argue no, if – as Stella believes – they just colorfully restated her opinion and the law.

This brings us to an overlooked irony.  What did Twitter aim to achieve?  Public safety, calming unsettled political waters, avoiding liability and criticism.  What did they achieve?  Maybe none of the above.    

In effect, the natural desire of Americans to speak on what bothers them – and a private venue shutting down political speech bothers them – created an explosion in communications.  Exchanges by internet, print, and broadcast media dwarfed the first tweets and responses.  If the goal of shutting down the speaker was to quiet the issue, the reverse occurred.  

That is the brilliance of the First Amendment.  If someone tries to crimp the right, a million voices rise to defend it.  Hundreds of media outlets are still alive with the controversy, discussing this “matter of public concern,” including ironically whether this sort of speech should be allowed.  So, aiming to squelch free speech, the private censor unintentionally inflamed it. While the First Amendment permits private restriction, it also allows mass objection.

Finally, what is the key assumption underlying the First Amendment?  In short, that Americans – in all eras – will act rationally.  The Founders presumed that, with an abundance of information, life experience, and common sense, Americans will parse nonsense and reach reasoned conclusions.  Allowing competition of ideas, Americans will keep finding truth.   

That is what they would likely still think today.  Are Stella’s tweets out of bounds, Omar’s behaviors over the top and unbecoming for a congresswoman, justice system doing its job, Congress doing theirs?  The Founders would have views and expect us to have ours.

They would also recognize government did not shut down the speaker, a private outlet did.  Dozens of media outlets are rushing to right the wrong.  Millions of Americans are exchanging opinions about the speakers and shutdown.  The potential political motivation is being discussed. 

Whatever view one has of Congressman Omar, challenger Stella, Twitter and the media, the First Amendment seems to be working.  In the end, our sacred liberty-protecting Amendments are vital. Protecting free speech is complex, but our Founders were prescient.  Even today, their foresights protect the Republic.

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Read more articles by Robert B. Charles

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David Williams

Twitter lost my business. They want to regulate ‘free” speech as to their leftest- leaning beliefs! MOST ALL social media is left-leaning, as a result of 50 PLUS YEARS OF LIBERALISM! The Republica party is EQUALLY TO BLAME WHILE STANDING BY ALL THESE YEARS WITH THEIR HEAD UP THEIR ASS! PUBLIC EDUCATION, FROM ELEMENTARY THRU COLLEGE HAS BEEN HIJACKED BY LIBERALISM. THERE IS NOT ONE UNIVERSITY IN THIS COUNTRY WHERE CONSERVATIVE AND LIBERAL TEACHERS ARE IN EQUAL SUPPLY.

Robert Messmer

No need for the government to regulate. All that is needed is to remove the Section 230 protection. It was granted on the grounds that they would be “platforms” that is ‘soapboxes’ and not “publishers” who determine what is allowed to be published. They are in violation, remove the protection and the lawyers will regulate them.

Gerard J Cecchettini

The attempt to swing opinions, elections, etc. to the “companies” ideological views and political support is very damaging to our election process. If these companies were restricted to just their political followers that is one thing but when the participants of their forum allows everyone, then manipulating speech in these monopolies should not be allowed and our government should look at that. And don’t forget Google who among their business interests (Echo, Maps, YouTube, etc.) have been manipulating elections to swing to the their choices. For information on that check out Dr. Robert Epstein’s research on the subject and the consequences of their meddling. Dr. Epstein is a Democrat, he admittedly voted for Hillary Clinton in the last election and agrees with most of the Democrat Party’s platforms. However, he also wants fair American election hence his research. What strikes me about him is that he appears to be incredibly… Read more »

Andy Kinney

Facebook and YouTube are denying and even removing reasonable conservative accounts. They blame their algorithms but people (programmers, management, etc.) make these algorithms, so that’s a red herring. How can someone be denied this visual public square monopoly in such a flippant manner? Perhaps these websites should be regulated as utilities are now due to their monopoly position.