I am what you might call a free speech extremist. After Facebook banned the likes of Alex Jones, Louis Farrakhan, and other radical voices from its site in May of 2019, I argued that the internet needs its own version of a town square, an “online refuge for unpopular speech that can never be taken away at the whim of a domain hosting company like GoDaddy or cast off into some remote corner of the web by a search engine like Google.”
Later that year, after actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen called on Congress to start regulating speech on popular social media platforms, I challenged his position on the grounds that I couldn’t “think of anything that legislators in Congress would love more than the opportunity to author a new social media rulebook designed to muffle the voices of their online critics while simultaneously boosting the influence of their ideological allies on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.”
Last October, Twitter’s decision to prevent its users from linking to the infamous New York Post story on Hunter Biden’s laptop caused quite the stir. I pushed back against that decision as well, arguing at the time that Silicon Valley shouldn’t be trusted with the power to manipulate the national discourse by censoring stories that it deems unsuitable for the viewing public’s eyes.
About a month later, after employees at Penguin Random House Canada pitched a fit over the company’s announcement that it would be publishing a sequel to Dr. Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, I lamented that there are some on the left who are trying “to establish a censorious culture that makes it nearly impossible for right-wing figures like Peterson to get their beliefs out into the public sphere to be discussed, debated, and analyzed.”
Needless to say, you won’t find very many proponents of free speech more passionate than yours truly. Free speech is, in my view, much more than just a legal principle; it’s a philosophy that recognizes the free exchange of ideas as the most fundamental mechanism in a society’s moral and intellectual development. To get to the good ideas, we must first eliminate the bad ones. And to eliminate the bad ideas, we have to acknowledge, debate, and deconstruct them. That is why, out of all the beliefs I hold dearest to my heart, my belief in the necessity of free speech is the one I regard as the most timeless and concrete.
There are, however, limits to everything in life, including freedom of speech. And out of the very few limits that even the most ardent defenders of free speech have long respected, incitement to violence remains very close to the top of the list. It should therefore come as no surprise that Twitter’s decision to ban President Trump from its platform has not elicited very many spirited objections from pro-free speech advocates and their allies.
Trump never issued an explicit call for violence in the weeks leading up to the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, but he didn’t need to. From the moment the election was called for Joe Biden, the tone and tenor of Trump’s tweets, many of which repeated nonsensical claims of widespread voter fraud, had been inexcusably provocative. He delighted in the outrage it stirred up among his base and paid no mind to indications that his more radical supporters were gearing up for extreme action. Eventually, it became plainly obvious to everyone that violence was sure to unfold in D.C. on the day that Congress gathered to certify the results of the election. What many did not expect, though, was for the violence to escalate to the level it did.
During the Capitol riots, Trump did virtually nothing to quell the violence that he helped inspire earlier that day with a fiery speech to his supporters, during which time he once again insisted that the election had been stolen from him. At one point, he tweeted a boilerplate denunciation of the riots, but it had no effect. For most of the rest of the afternoon, he ignored calls from fellow Republicans and administration officials to intervene, perhaps because he was too busy enjoying the chaotic spectacle from the comfort of the West Wing.
He could have stepped in and put an end to the turmoil whenever he pleased, but he held back. He willingly stood on the sidelines, twiddling his thumbs, watching the Capitol be ransacked by raging hordes of insurrectionists. And when it was all over, he had the audacity to try to legitimize the violence by tweeting that the Capitol attack was an example of what happens “when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.”
There is no context in which Trump’s words and behaviors can be characterized as anything other than an incitement to violence. Every false claim of election fraud, every asinine assertion that he would return for a second term, and every deranged declaration of a vast left-wing conspiracy to sabotage his presidency served to stoke the flames of a fire set by an arsonist-in-chief hellbent on laying waste to the very same institutions he has sworn to protect and defend.
Twitter was left with no choice. To leave Trump’s account open would be to leave the nation vulnerable to successive rounds of violence and chaos that it isn’t currently equipped to withstand. Motivated exclusively by the need for validation and hero worship, Trump is incapable of exerting even a modicum of self-restraint. He cares nothing for the men and women he purports to represent. He harbors no concern for the lives he has put in danger by rallying his most radical supporters behind a lost and foolish cause. His one and only aim is to feed his ego, and he’ll go to any lengths necessary to accomplish that task, even if it means risking more bloodshed and instability.
I don’t believe that this is the route Twitter executives wanted to take. They’ve absorbed more than their fair share of criticism from conservatives who have accused the company of being openly biased against Donald Trump and the GOP. But had Twitter decided to look the other way while Trump continued to embolden his most militant far-right disciples, the results would have surely been disastrous. That is why, despite being the unapologetic free speech extremist that I am, I fully support the company’s decision to shut down his account. President Trump crossed a line that few public officials ever do, and Twitter responded appropriately. They have nothing to apologize for.