President Trump and his supporters are crying foul after social media companies such as Twitter banned him from using their platforms. They’re complaining that this is unfair and illegal censorship.

Given the apparent misunderstanding of what censorship means, a review of the topic might be helpful.

Start with a definition. Censorship is the act of reviewing any form of communication “for the purpose of suppressing parts deemed objectionable on moral, political, military, or other grounds,” as the Dictionary.com website puts it.

Censorship is most powerful when a government uses it. This can be a local school board banning “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” because of the book’s language that is offensive to modern readers, or the federal government restricting battlefield information during wartime.

But broadly speaking, there’s not a whole lot of government censorship in America anymore. That’s the Constitution’s First Amendment in action. It says governments cannot restrict the freedom of speech.

Most censorship is self-imposed by the people who create the communication. Examples include the movie industry’s morals code from the 1930s to the 1950s, and the decision by most newspapers and broadcasters to avoid foul language or extremely violent imagery so as not to offend their customers.

The problem is what happens when the communications middleman gets removed, and anybody can say whatever they want with little fear of retribution or a lawsuit. This is exactly what’s been going on with social media for years.

If there is anyone who has thrived from a lack of speech restriction, it is the president. He’s used Twitter to promote himself — first his TV show and now his administration, to denigrate his opponents, to fire his secretary of state and others, and to sell his image as a tough guy to his millions of fans. Clearly, it worked.

But last week’s abhorrent trashing of the U.S. Capitol flipped an online switch. Twitter banned the president, fearing he will use the service to incite violence when Joe Biden is sworn into office.

Twitter’s decision is not censorship. It is not the government preventing someone from speaking out. It is a private company deciding it no longer wishes to allow someone to use its services. There’s a big difference.

Every newspaper, every radio station, every television broadcaster commits a form of censorship every day when it decides not to pay attention to information it has received. This decision might be for space or time limitations, or the judgment that the information will not interest its audience. In every case, it is the communicator’s First Amendment right not to use the information. The sender has no legal right to demand that it be used.

It’s the same thing with social media. The president is certainly the highest-profile person that Twitter has banned. But just as this newspaper gets to decide what information goes onto its pages, Twitter gets to decide who can use its platform.

There’s really no debate about this. Trump fans can complain that Twitter or any other company is being unfair, and that may be true. But the First Amendment does not require fairness in its protections of speech and media rights.

Most likely, Twitter and other social media companies are taking action because they worry the government will make them liable for the content people put on the companies’ platforms. They need to worry: If last week proved anything, it’s that the social media volume is out of control.

(2) comments

Hal Fiore

You missed one irony about the whole thing: If Twitter is afraid that the "government will make them liable" for the tweets of users, the main reason is that Trump himself has been trying to remove the FCC rule that protects them from that liability.

tkalich Staff
tkalich

Hal,

Thanks for the response. One correction to your statement.

It's not an FCC rule but a provision in federal law (Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996) that Donald Trump wanted changed.

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