In Defence of Liberty

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On Free Speech and Twitter

On-Free-Speech-and-Twitter-shawncampbell.jpg

Is it ‘free speech’ or is it a usage license? (Edited: shawncampbell)

In continuation of irrelevant and erroneous calls upon freedom of speech [1], many citations are based around the use of digital and social media.

On the micro-blogging website Twitter, where single posts are limited to 140 characters, Milo Yiannopoulos recently had the verification of his account removed [2]. The popular journalist and entrepreneur, who is currently the Technology Editor for the US-based conservative news and opinion site Breitbart, claimed this was a matter of ‘free speech’:

What Twitter CEO said about free speech. I don’t remember the water company shutting me off for my opinions.

In reaction to this decertification, Mr Yiannopoulos’ supporters posted on Twitter with ‘Je suis Milo’, changed their profiles to match him, and launched a White House petition to demand [3]:

The Obama Administration should issue a strong statement of support for freedom of speech. Give Milo back his badge! #JeSuisMilo

“War on libertarian and millennial voices”

The petition asserts the unverified account meant Twitter was “effectively declaring war on libertarian and millennial voices by punishing the outspoken commentator for his views”. This petition has a meagre 1,600 signatures, below the 100,000 required for an official response.

These are errors compounded upon errors.

Firstly, Mr Yiannopoulos did not have the verification removed due to his “opinions”, but because of a violation of Twitter’s rules [4]:

An account may also lose its verified status if it violates the Twitter Rules or Terms of Service.

One of these rules centres around harassment, and explicitly states [5]:

You may not incite or engage in the targeted abuse or harassment of others.

In an exchange with another user, they asked: “Milo could you tell your creepy weirdo misogynist followers to maybe take a shower and get a life instead of harass me online?” Mr Yiannopoulos responded:

You deserve to be harassed you social justice loser.

The pub and the expulsion

Secondly, it is common to conflate state censorship with a private entity removing posts or articles from its own website, but this is not even what has happened here. Mr Yiannopoulos has had no posts removed in reaction to his violation of Twitter’s rules. Whilst a verified account does offer certain benefits and additional functionality, there has been no censorship of any kind.

Thirdly, freedom of speech is a prohibition on governments and violence: freedom of speech is achieved when the speech and publication of opinion induces neither legal prosecution nor violent retribution. It does not extend to private organisations, which are permitted to write and enact their own rules. A pub may expel you for being rude to their staff. A social media website may delete your account, or remove functionality from a user, for harassing and being abusive towards other users.

Even if Mr Yiannopoulos was absolutely correct that he had been unfairly targeted due to his political beliefs, this would be an issue of a private company improperly following procedures on the use of its service, and not freedom of speech.

There is no constitutional right or moral mandate to have a Twitter account. When you are on Twitter, you play by their rules.

References

[1] Masters, A., 2016. On Free Speech and ‘Rhodes Must Fall’. In Defence of Liberty. Available from: https://anthonymasters.wordpress.com/2016/01/09/on-free-speech-and-rhodes-must-fall/ [Accessed: 15th January 2016]

[2] Kantrowitz, A., 2016. Twitter Unverifies Writer Amid Speech Wars. BuzzFeed. Available from: http://www.buzzfeed.com/alexkantrowitz/twitter-unverifies-milo-yiannopoulos-leading-to-speech-polic#.vcDZa8aqD [Accessed: 15th January 2016]

[3] White House Petitions, 2016. Issue a statement demanding the restoration of Milo Yiannopoulos’s Twitter verification badge. Available from: https://petitions.whitehouse.gov//petition/issue-statement-demanding-restoration-milo-yiannopouloss-twitter-verification-badge [Accessed: 15th January 2016]

[4] Twitter, 2016. FAQs about verified accounts. Available from: https://support.twitter.com/articles/119135?lang=en [Accessed: 15th January 2016]

[5] Twitter, 2016. The Twitter Rules. Available from: https://support.twitter.com/articles/18311 [Accessed: 15th January 2016]

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4 comments on “On Free Speech and Twitter

  1. BarristerK
    March 10, 2016

    Erm, wait a second while I prove that the assertion made at the end of this article, is unconstitutional and a limitation to ones liberty.

    • Anthony Masters
      March 10, 2016

      How can the claim itself be “unconstitutional”? I am not suggesting that the government interferes here.

  2. Afeef
    June 10, 2016

    Why’s it ok for private organisations to curb freedom of speech but not government?

    • Anthony Masters
      June 10, 2016

      Private organisations should have the freedom to choose who their members are, and what they publish.

      To use an example, being expelled for espousing anti-feminist beliefs whilst being a member of a feminist group is not really the same thing — at all — to being imprisoned for espousing such beliefs.

      No newspaper is obliged to push every reader’s letter, nor is any political party obliged to keep someone registered as a member.

      Think through what your equivocation implies: a person could join a party or group and then continuously espouse beliefs that are contrary to that party’s stated values or that group’s known purpose, without any recourse.

      That is a curb on the freedom of association of the private organisation.

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