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Toss Trump Off Twitter
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Toss Trump Off Twitter

And why Facebook made the right call to remove POTUS.

I’m going to be writing some hard newsletters these next few days. As a lifelong advocate for free speech, I’m going to share below thoughts I never thought I’d share in the United States of America. In my Sunday newsletter, I’m going to share some very hard words for the American church. We are living in a crisis unlike anything we’ve experienced in modern America. It’s time to act like it.

Before I dive in, I want to very clearly state that Wednesday’s insurrection in the nation’s capital has left both political and private sector leaders with few good options. Every path is dangerous. A rapid move to impeach and remove Trump—which I endorse—will ratchet up tensions. It may even lead to more violence from Trump’s mob. But the mob doesn’t get to rule America, and it’s necessary not only to punish Trump for inciting an attack on our democracy but also to bar him from ever holding federal office again.

Why do I also mention private sector leaders? Because Trump has brazenly used private platforms to poison the body politic with an avalanche of inflammatory lies and dangerous rhetoric. And now we’ve seen firsthand the awful consequence of his reckless speech.

Ever since the rise of Trump and the sharp increase in national polarization, I’ve made two consistent arguments about free speech online. First, it is not the government’s role to tell private corporations how to run their platforms. A company can decide what kind of forum it wants to create. Second, private corporations should use their freedom to moderate speech as much as possible in a viewpoint neutral fashion. Yes, prohibit porn, harassment, and bullying to create family-friendly spaces (if you so desire) but don’t put your thumb on the partisan scales.

This position was based in part on more than twenty years of dealing with university speech codes, where (usually) well-meaning administrators tried and failed to create free-speech utopias with broad and vague “hate speech” policies that were invariably selectively enforced. I can tell story after story after story of universities suppressing mainstream Christian and conservative speech even as they empowered wildly hateful speech from ideological allies.

(If you want to read about an all-time insane double standard, it would be hard to beat this case from my FIRE days.)

I’ve pressed the case for voluntary First Amendment-style viewpoint neutrality in public and in private conversations with tech executives. During one such conversation, I was asked a key question: I get your point, but we operate in countries across the globe. Do you maintain your default free speech position if we determine that our platform is being used to foment civil unrest?

My response was fast. No. A hard no. A true marketplace of ideas can flourish only in the presence of order. To make this blunt, what good is a theoretical right to speak if my neighbor can beat me or kill me with impunity if he doesn’t like my words?

In fact, there’s a constitutional doctrine that in many instances compels the government to protect your rights of free speech against efforts to intimidate you, shout you down, or silence you. The First Amendment guards against the so-called “heckler’s veto” and will often compel the government to provide sufficient security to protect your speech.

The phrase “ordered liberty” has a rich history and meaning, and it communicates a deep truth. In the absence of a fundamental baseline of norms and laws, liberty cannot flourish. Indeed, in the absence of those laws and norms, liberty will perversely become an instrument of cultural destruction. John Adams put the matter well in his famous Letter to the Massachusetts Militia:

We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by morality and Religion. Avarice, Ambition, Revenge or Galantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

Indeed, there’s virtually no popular support for the idea that social media companies should permit insurrectionists (of any ideological stripe) to use their platform to plan or incite violent unrest. 

But what if the president of the United States is the insurrectionist-in-chief?

When Donald Trump was elevated to the presidency, his core supporters pursued a fundamentally unsustainable course. They simultaneously celebrated his norm-breaking while furiously demanding that the response to Trump follow all applicable norms. Only Trump could be the bull in the china shop. Only Trump could be the horse in the hospital.

Well, the bull has broken a lot of china. And on Wednesday, the nation’s very ability to secure the liberty that’s the lifeblood of the republic wavered and cracked. A Trump mob achieved what the Confederacy could not. It launched a violent, deadly, and sustained occupation of the Capitol. It halted for a time the vital process of counting electoral votes, a process essential to the peaceful transition of power.

Why did this happen? There were many causes, but one cause—perhaps the principal cause—was the president of the United States using private platforms to spew an avalanche of grotesque lies and inflammatory rhetoric into the body politic. He triggered an actual insurrection.

So the advice I gave more than a year ago—advice I thought applied only to unstable countries in the developing world—applies here. It applies now. Should social media companies continue to provide a platform to Trump? No. They should not.

Readers know that The Dispatch is a Facebook fact check partner, but I have no reluctance to critique flawed decisions from Facebook. However, I agree with Mark Zuckerberg’s decision Thursday to ban Trump. At present, he is a danger to our republic, and private corporations should not help him spread his seditious message. Here’s the key part of Zuckerberg’s explanation:

Over the last several years, we have allowed President Trump to use our platform consistent with our own rules, at times removing content or labeling his posts when they violate our policies. We did this because we believe that the public has a right to the broadest possible access to political speech, even controversial speech. But the current context is now fundamentally different, involving use of our platform to incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government.

We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great. Therefore, we are extending the block we have placed on his Facebook and Instagram accounts indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.

For a time, Twitter followed suit and suspended Trump’s account until he deleted inflammatory messages. But Trump is back online. Twitter should pull the plug. It’s time.

I understand the danger to free speech and the threat of slippery slopes. Believe me. I do. But liberty cannot survive chaos. And our liberty now faces a threat from a movement that will go so far as to assault officers and commit murder in the Capitol itself to halt the democratic process. That movement is led by the president of the United States.

 Enough is enough. Shut him down.

One last thing …

This has been a heavy newsletter. They’ll likely remain heavy for some time. But we can still laugh. I linked to the John Mulaney “horse in the hospital” sketch above. If you haven’t heard it before, listen now (clean version attached):

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.