Twitter takes flight

Twitter has permanently suspended Donald Trump’s account, changing the relationship between free speech and social media forever

President Donald Trump has not posted on social media in nearly a week. Not a Facebook update, not an infamous Tweet. Not even a hashtag. Nothing. And honestly? I’m okay with it. For now.

On Friday, Jan. 8, Twitter released a statement via blog post titled “Permanent suspension of @realDonaldTrump.” The post explained the company’s decision to ban President Trump from their platform, citing his two most recent Tweets as demonstrating “risk of further incitement of violence.” President Trump has also been banned from Facebook, Instagram and even TikTok, among other platforms.

Legally speaking, this is pretty cut-and-dry. Twitter and Instagram, as private companies, reserve the right to prohibit anyone from using their sites (yes, even the President). And it’s not really a First Amendment issue either—the Constitution grants you the right to free speech, not a free Twitter account. President Trump’s freedom of speech is still perfectly intact, and he has numerous alternative avenues to exercise his power of the bully pulpit—to use his presidency as a platform for his own agenda and opinions. Even the heavily debated speech he gave on national television last Wednesday is, according to former prosecutor for the Office of the Attorney General, Jeffrey Scott Shapiro, protected by the First Amendment, as it does not meet the legal requirements for criminal incitement of violence.

So, if you ask me, the big question here isn’t about Trump at all. It’s about Twitter. Silencing a world leader is no small thing, and it should make us all a little uneasy, regardless of how you feel about said leader. Here’s the thing: Twitter has always had this power. They’ve just never used it, at least not on such a large and influential scale. Twitter has finally flexed its immense legal muscle, and the result is a precedent that could (or at least should) change the relationship between free speech and social media forever.

As a private company, Twitter is in a position of unique control: What they allow people to post doesn’t have to fall under the category of “free speech,” but merely “Twitter-approved speech”—it might be protected by the First Amendment, but it if doesn’t follow the Twitter Rules, tough luck. But if they let speech that isn’t “Twitter-approved,” at least according to the rules, go unchecked, they wouldn’t just be disapproving of content, but inadvertently approving of other content by allowing it to stay up on the site. That causes a censorship problem: suspending accounts of people or viewpoints they don’t like, and letting the platform fill with Tweets that express ideas the company wants to promote.

So this can’t be a one-and-done thing. Choosing to suspend the President now, especially after he’s arguably crossed the line several times, means that this must be the first step in a long process of clearing out unruly speech on Twitter. If Twitter’s going to start banning people who are breaking their rules, then they have to ban all of them. Otherwise, the precariously balanced ebeneezer of free speech and social media is going to come down, hard.