Twitter Is a Private Company and Can Ban Trump If They Want To (Or Can They?)
Twitter banned Trump permanently.
There’s a lot of ado about this.
From the right, I mostly hear upset. From the left, I mostly hear “‘bout time.” More specifically, the right tends to feel it was unfair, potentially illegal even while the left mocks the right for not understanding the difference between private and public rules. “Twitter is a private company and can do whatever they want,” the left says.
But can they?
Now, when it comes to goals, overarching values, and ideals, I tend to lean very left. But I want to remind my left friends of an important principal that needs to be used to achieve those goals, overarching values, and ideals, lest they get themselves in a bind: universal application.
You see, if Twitter can ban Trump permanently; and you believe that it’s because Twitter is a private business, then what you’re probably saying is that private businesses can censor and select however they want. Just like Costco enforcing masks for customers.
But what happens when you apply that principal universally? Do you really want private businesses being able to censor and select whenever they want? Do you want private businesses to refuse services to people of color or the LGBTQ+ community? What if Twitter had banned BLM permanently? Give yourself 30 good seconds and imagine that. Truly imagine it. How would you feel? What kinds of arguments would you have against Twitter for this? What reasoning would come to mind?
In law, there is a doctrine that essentially says if you open your business to the public (and the more you do so), you are potentially a quasi-public business, similar to the old “town square” where folks would go to let their voice be heard. If you become quasi-public, you also take on some important responsibilities, such as no longer being allowed to silence certain kinds of protected speech.
Now before anyone gets in a tizzy (too late, I know), I understand that some kinds of speech are not protected. And, specifically, a lot of Trump’s speech likely falls into a category known as “fighting words” or “inciteful” and so it is not and should not be protected. I’m not advocating to protect that kind of speech.
What I am saying is that, if you want to make or support good laws that won’t come back to bite you, you need to look at what the law and principal would be like if universally applied (ahem: that means if applied against you).
If you support something, first ask yourself why. Keep asking why until you get at the underlying principal. When you get to the underlying principal, apply that principal against yourself and your own ideals and beliefs. Only then will you find the holes in your logic and — aha, the exceptions that will correct for those holes.
What do we really want when we say Trump should be banned from Twitter? We want him to stop inciting hatred, bigotry, abuse, and the storming of the damned Capitol. Sure, we could get that through the principal of “private businesses can do what they want,” but then…private businesses could do what they want … like segregating races. Eek.
So what’s a better principal to uphold then? That Twitter is a quasi-public forum, should not be allowed to censor at will, but should be allowed to censor inciteful speech and fighting words. That principal holds up even when universally applied.
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