President Trump recently signed an executive order to impose more limits on what social media platforms, and specifically Twitter, can publish. This move is to retaliate against Twitter’s announcement that it will fact-check and possibly comment on his tweets on various issues, such as the propriety of mail-in ballots in the fall presidential campaign. The President’s move is bad because it constitutes an unwise, ill-conceived, and potentially dangerous attack on one of our most invaluable freedoms—freedom of speech. He should censor himself, not Twitter.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump made brilliant use of Twitter to rally and communicate directly with his millions of supporters without having to go through an almost uniformly hostile media. But all too often during his presidency, he has also used Twitter to criticize and even fire members of his administration, as well as to attack his political opponents. Whatever the merits of his arguments, his use of Twitter has invited criticism and probably reduced his popularity. He should either give up his account or at least turn over its management to someone more articulate and politically savvy, who can use it to more positively and effectively promote his policies.
But Trump has chosen a different path. As reported at https://www.theverge.com/2020/5/28/21273019/donald-trump-executive-order-twitter-liability-facebook-230-ftc-fcc, “Trump will order the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission to roll back the liability protections enjoyed by tech companies under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. It’s a hugely ambitious proposal, arguably the biggest single attempt to regulate internet platforms, and for better or worse, it signals the beginning of an all-out war between Trump and any platform that tries to fact-check him…Sometimes called the most important law on the internet, Section 230 exempts companies from most liability for speech on their platform and gives them broad discretion in how they moderate speech. In concrete terms, it means you can’t sue Twitter for banning or not banning a particular account.”
President Trump’s initiative is potentially dangerous. I personally don’t think any right should be absolute. Nobody should have the right to infringe on the legitimate rights of others. And freedom of speech can be abused by those who use it to libel, slander, or shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. But what Trump is proposing may well have a chilling effect, causing Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Google, and other social media platforms to limit their content beyond reasonable limits and—far more importantly—limit the opportunities for the public to use social media to vigorously debate the issues of the day. The right to do so, while never not important, is especially important in 2020 as we try to cope with our roiling crises while deciding whom we should elect, or re-elect, President of the United States.
Moreover, each time we suppress speech we don’t like, we create a precedent by which we ourselves can become victims of the censorship of others. Rules which would limit criticism of the President today could be used to limit praise of him tomorrow. To censor Democrats today opens the door to censorship of the GOP down the line. And of course those of you who’ve criticized this column in the past for my views on abortion (against), China (against), vaccines (for), Trump (sometimes for, sometimes against) might lose the right to criticize me in the future, although I myself might well lose the right to keep publishing one of your favorite targets.
The cure for speech we don’t like—especially for political speech—is not suppression or censorship, but more speech to question and counteract that which is offensive. To that end, as a Stephenville City Council member, I defended the right of the Ku Klux Klan to demonstrate in Stephenville as long as its demonstration was peaceful and legal, but I also helped the then-active local chapter of the NAACP organize a counter-protest, while supporting the Stephenville Police Department’s wise and successful efforts to make sure neither group met the other. Free speech for all, censorship for none.
So President Trump should shelve his plans to try to regulate social media platforms, or any other media platforms as well. Rather, he, and we, should encourage the vigorous give and take which will help a free people find better solutions to the crisis we face, and help keep America great.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.