Around the time I was 7, a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan sued my father and the newspaper he published in our small town. He had refused to take a paid advertisement from them announcing a rally somewhere. The Klan felt it had a right to use my father’s paper as long as it paid for the space. The Klan was wrong. The newspaper prevailed very quickly after the lawsuit was filed.
I thought about that today as the glib assertions flew that Twitter’s banning of an obnoxious and contemptible person last night was somehow depriving him — if not under statute, at least in principle — of a right. And if that’s not ignorant horseshit, it’s intellectually dishonest horseshit. It’s aired out in the internet’s steaming mud paddock of freelance legal scholarship, by people who enjoy thinking highly of themselves for defending the First Amendment’s guarantees to all while they mangle the concepts upon which that rests.
The internet’s ‘supervillain’ pretends he’s a politically unpopular victim
You don’t have a right to do anything on Twitter. You have privileges there, granted by the people who created and operate the service. The assumption that Twitter should tolerate, enable or defer in its policies to those who claim their conduct is political or protected expression is absurd. A few months ago a colleague was handed a 24-hour ban by Twitter for tweeting to a sitting senator (a Republican, too) that he wished that the senator would die. Was it political speech? Inherently. Tough shit. Now he knows not to do that.
Twitter is in the business of acquiring and growing a user base which it sells to advertisers. Ostensibly, so is the publication that employs Milo Yiannopoulos, where his reach and influence apparently is quite limited without Twitter. Problem is, Yiannopoulos’ conduct and the publicity surrounding it — mainly, dog-whistling his followers to flood his targets with harassment at the drop of an innocent @ or two — depresses the desire among well-adjusted people to use or read Twitter. It also cultivates a malevolent audience that isn’t useful to Twitter’s advertising operation, and one that Twitter’s clients would rather not associate with. (My former employer seems to think the “tax” it pays in lost advertising revenue is entirely attributable to provocative editorial conduct, when it’s also possible that no one wants to do business with the hostile and nasty readership it has cultivated, too.)
All of this addresses the same reasons that Dad, 35 years ago, told the Klan to fuck off, and a court said yep, they can fuck off. It wasn’t that their money wasn’t good. It’s that if their ignorant view of free expression stood, he’d be obligated to brand his product with the message of violent racists, whose readership he didn’t want, and whom he didn’t want to send to his advertisers. Twitter’s action against Yiannopoulos is perfectly valid on those grounds alone, and if he feels injured here, let him sue. He will get as far.
Now, yes, someone will bring up hypotheticals like an evangelical Christian baker not wanting to provide his services to a gay wedding. Shouldn’t he also have the right to refuse the business of those with whom he wouldn’t associate? First, that argumentatively elevates baking a cake — or arranging flowers, changing a tire or offering a public restroom — to a form of political expression itself. It’s not. Put another way, I’m sure my father sold advertising to racists without being told to do so by a court. I’m sure I threw papers on their lawns. We took their money. But he wasn’t telling everyone the time and day of the next cross burning. And I wasn’t delivering The Daily Kleagle.
This ignorant view of free speech would obligate Twitter to participate in obnoxious conduct it condemns
My point here isn’t to write a legalese dismissal for this knee-jerk, garbage complaint against Twitter. It’s to challenge and deny the broader and absolutely stupid sense of entitlement that fuels it, and other grade-school temper tantrums whenever someone gets banned or moderated online. And that’s this idea that if whatever you’ve vomited into that comment window is bootstrapped to the concept of free speech, then the forum itself is bound to respect its presence and welcome you to its community.
Bullshit. We didn’t print every letter to the editor at the newspaper. Did that violate the letter writer’s rights? We laughed as we threw most in the trash, because it’s what they deserved. Then, as newspapers went online about 20 years ago, some claque of naïve career editors fresh out of a Poynter seminar decided it was real empowering to slap comment modules under every story and say “let us know what you think!” as if anyone really cared. Now we’re in a rancid, narcissistic comment culture that confuses having an opinion for having a point, and feels a constitutional right to the reach and power of a privately owned and developed publishing channel.
As it banned Yiannopoulos, Twitter fessed up to not fully honoring its responsibility as the administrator of an enormous public space, and its responsibility to protect those who used the service appropriately and not abusively. Yiannopoulos bleats indignantly that the martyrdom he practically demanded will mean the end of Twitter as he postures his snickering, willful antagonism as unpopular political speech. No. The end of Twitter, social media and any publication begins with their abdication of responsibility to the discussions they solicit, not the banishment of those who abuse them.