Twitter is not censoring Trump. Free speech is not guaranteed

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Katharine Gelber, The University of Queensland

The recent storming of the US Capitol has led a number of social media platforms to remove President Donald Trump’s account. In the case of Twitter, the ban is permanent. Others, like Facebook, have taken him offline until after President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration next week.

This has led to a flurry of commentary in the Australian media about ‘free speech’. Treasurer Josh Frydenburg has said he is “uncomfortable” with Twitter’s removal of Trump, while the acting prime minister, Michael McCormack, has described it as “censorship”.

Meanwhile, MPs like Craig Kelly and George Christensen continue to ignore the evidence and promote misinformation about the nature of the violent, pro-Trump mob that attacked the Capitol.

A growing number of MPs are also reportedly calling for consistent and transparent rules to be applied by online platforms in a bid to combat hate speech and other types of harmful speech.

Some have conflated this effort with the restrictions on Trump’s social media usage, as though both of these issues reflect the same problem.

Much of this commentary is misguided, wrong and confusing. So let’s pull it apart a bit.

There is no free speech ‘right’ to incite violence

There is no free speech argument in existence that suggests an incitement of lawlessness and violence is protected speech.

Quite to the contrary. Nineteenth century free speech proponent John Stuart Mill argued the sole reason one’s liberty may be interfered with (including restrictions on free speech) is “self-protection” – in other words, to protect people from harm or violence.

Additionally, incitement to violence is a criminal offence in all liberal democratic orders. There is an obvious reason for this: violence is harmful. It harms those who are immediately targeted (five people died in the riots last week) and those who are intimidated as a result of the violence to take action or speak up against it.

It also harms the institutions of democracy themselves, which rely on elections rather than civil wars and a peaceful transfer of power.

To suggest taking action against speech that incites violence is ‘censoring’ the speaker is completely misleading.

There is no free speech ‘right’ to appear on a particular platform

There is also no free speech argument that guarantees any citizen the right to express their views on a specific platform.

It is ludicrous to suggest there is. If this ‘right’ were to exist, it would mean any citizen could demand to have their opinions aired on the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald and, if refused, claim their free speech had been violated.

What does exist is a general right to express oneself in public discourse, relatively free from regulation, as long as one’s speech does not harm others.

Trump still possesses this right. He has a podium in the West Wing designed for this specific purpose, which he can make use of at any time.

Were he to do so, the media would cover what he says, just as they covered his comments prior to, during and immediately after the riots. This included him telling the rioters that he loved them and that they were “very special”.

Trump told his supporters before the Capitol was overrun: “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Does the fact he’s the president change this?

In many free speech arguments, political speech is accorded a higher level of protection than other forms of speech (such as commercial speech, for example). Does the fact this debate concerns the president of the United States change things?

No, it does not. There is no doubt Trump has been given considerable leeway in his public commentary prior to – and during the course of – his presidency. However, he has now crossed a line into stoking imminent lawlessness and violence.

This cannot be protected speech just because it is ‘political’. If this was the case, it would suggest the free speech of political elites can and should have no limits at all.

Yet, in all liberal democracies – even the United States which has the strongest free speech protection in the world – free speech has limits. These include the incitement of violence and crime.

Are social media platforms over-censoring?

The last decade or so has seen a vigorous debate over the attitudes and responses of social media platforms to harmful speech.

The big tech companies have staunchly resisted being asked to regulate speech, especially political speech, on their platforms. They have enjoyed the profits of their business model, while specific types of users – typically the marginalised – have borne the costs.

However, platforms have recently started to respond to demands and public pressure to address the harms of the speech they facilitate – from countering violent extremism to fake accounts, misinformation, revenge porn and hate speech.

They have developed community standards for content moderation that are publicly available. They release regular reports on their content moderation processes.

Facebook has even created an independent oversight board to arbitrate disputes over their decision making on content moderation.

They do not always do very well at this. One of the core problems is their desire to create algorithms and policies that are applicable universally across their global operations. But such a thing is impossible when it comes to free speech. Context matters in determining whether and under what circumstances speech can harm. This means they make mistakes.

Where to now?

The calls by MPs Anne Webster and Sharon Claydon to address hate speech online are important. They are part of the broader push internationally to find ways to ensure the benefits of the internet can be enjoyed more equally, and that a person’s speech does not silence or harm others.

Arguments about harm are longstanding, and have been widely accepted globally as forming a legitimate basis for intervention.

But the suggestion Trump has been censored is simply wrong. It misleads the public into believing all ‘free speech’ claims have equal merit. They do not.

We must work to ensure harmful speech is regulated in order to ensure broad participation in the public discourse that is essential to our lives – and to our democracy. Anything less is an abandonment of the principles and ethics of governance.The Conversation

Katharine Gelber, Professor of Politics and Public Policy, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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Total Comments: 51
  1. 4

    19 dead in the BLM riots, looting and destruction of property, but it’s not the same as the attack on the Capitol Hill, tell that to the families of the dead, I don’t agree with Trumps comments, violence is a crime no matter the reason, the woke community are the ones being divisive, Biden and Pelosi were just as guilty with their support of the BLM movement, and the show of support for the BLM movement by the cricketers especially the Sydney Sixers who I believe have been ordered to take this action, taking the knee is bad enough but the guys giving the Black power salute is nothing more than racism, why are the future President and the speaker of the house not being censored. I was around for the protest against apartheid and definitely agreed with it and the best protest is not playing against anyone who supported Apartheid, it’s fine to ban someone from social media for their hate speech, there is no doubt in my mind that Biden’s support of BLM and the speeches he made increased the amount of violence that the BLM protesters were guilty of, and for their supporters to claim that they were only responsible for 5% of the violence is tantamount to hypocrisy, 95 dead over a period of 3 weeks of destruction !

    • 5

      I agree. The BLM riots which resulted in the burning of whole towns, looting, destruction of businesses at will, were described by most of the American press AND Joe Biden and Ms Pelosi as ‘ peaceful demonstrations’. Mr Biden and Ms Pelosi called for the defunding of police and in fact promised to ‘ re-allocate’ funding should they win the election. Those same people round the country who also demanded the police be defunded are the very same voices now demanding to know where the police and other security details were when the Trump supporters charged the Capital building. Mr Biden made the statement that had the ‘ rioters’ been black or from BLM movement (which he only acknowledged in the past as an ” idea’ ) they would have been treated differently. They sure would! There would have been no arrests after the event, there would have been no impeachment, no calls for the President elect to stand down. Nothing!

      The removal of Mr Trump from social media is nothing more than a political statement. Twitter refused to take down the offensive image posted by China depicting Australian soldier murdering a child. Why? Because Twitter has been trying for years to be allowed to operate in China. They do not want to upset China by censoring posts. Nor do any of the social media platforms do anything to remove or close accounts of any of the far left posters, Islamic fundamentalist posts inciting violence against the West, no starvation ideation sites are removed and the list goes on. Yet Mr Trump is banned. For what? What exactly did the post say that the platforms have got all upset about?

      No this is nothing more than opportunistic censorship of a person ill-liked and the culmination of 4 years of the Democrats not accepting they lost the 2017 election. China and Russia are rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of Mr Biden in the White House. Mr Biden used his position under Mr Obama to amass billions of dollars through very dubious dealings with his son. These have never been examined, never mind given the same scrutiny as Mr Trumps tax returns!

      Mr Biden is stacking his cabinet with as many minority woke groups as he can starting with his Vice President. It remains to be seen what America will look like in 4 years time as he bulldozes through his very woke agenda through the House and the senate both of which he will control next week. All I say is be very careful what you wish for.

    • 0

      Over 400 Indigenous Australians have died in Police Custody SINCE a Royal Commission into black deaths in Custody, NO charges laid. African Americans account for 24 percent of those fatally shot and killed by the police despite being just 13 percent of the U.S. population.I think we can safely say you have missed the point of the whole BLM movement, here and in the US. The Capitol Hill riots were nothing more that some spoiled brats who lost a fair election and can’t cope.

    • 2

      McDaddy, I see you are regurgitating the BLM line without first doing your research. Conveniently ignoring the following:

      * The majority of deaths are due to natural causes (58%)
      * About 32% are due to suicide (hanging)
      * Indigenous people are now less likely than non-Indigenous people to die in prison custody.
      *A TOTAL 2419 people died in custody in the same period meaning there were 1964 non-Indigenous deaths in custody in the same time period!

      Of course any death is regretful but what makes an Indigenous death any worse than a non-Indigenous death?

      ALL lives matter!

    • 0

      “spoiled brats who lost a fair election and can’t cope” … HMMM … “fair election”??????????

      Biden is set to become the first president in 60 years to lose the states of Ohio and Florida on his way to election. For a century, these states have consistently predicted the national outcome, and they have been considered roughly representative of the American melting pot as a whole. Despite national polling giving Biden a lead in both states, he lost Ohio by eight points and Florida by more than three.
      For Biden to lose these key bellwethers by notable margins and still win the national election is newsworthy. Not since the Mafia allegedly aided John F. Kennedy in winning Illinois over Richard Nixon in 1960 has an American president pulled off this neat trick.

      An obvious head-scratcher is to wonder how an old notably cognitively challenged politician with no discernible accomplishments over nearly a half-century, lacklustre Democratic primary performance in a field of radical lightweights, conspicuously inactive campaigning with no clear policy messaging, and no evidence whatsoever of enthusiasm within his own party ranks, could possibly have received the most votes in presidential history.

      Election FRAUD How it was done
      No need to show any FRAUDULENTvotes to prove a STOLEN election

      NO NEED TO PROVE Election FRAUD! Last minute unconstitutional changes to election laws in 6 key battleground states is enough for STOLEN election

    • 0

      KSS you will need to provide a source for your numbers please.

    • 0

      McDaddy try looking at the ABS.

    • 0

      And the Guardian is not biased in any way at all right. Just look up the true figures that show all those who have dies in custody and how they died. They even differentiate between prison deaths and deaths in police custody. But then you obviously don’t want to be bothered preferring to simply repeat the poorly researched and erroneous diatribes parroting claims from BLM that have no basis.

    • 0

      It’s one thing to read the data, another thing to know how to interpret it.

    • 0

      True to form. When the facts don’t match the agenda, insult the messenger!

  2. 3

    Perhaps we should ask the leaders of Russia, China, North Korea how to control free speech!

    • 2

      “Perhaps we should ask the leaders of Russia, China, North Korea how to control free speech!”

      Too late Twitter and Facebook already have and implemented the advice censorship.

  3. 2

    Years ago when I was a small child my Grandmother had a saying _” Before you open your mouth make sure that your brain is engaged”. What’s been lost in this so called free speech debate is the truth, with fake news and distorted information being passed around on social media as if it is gospel. One of the worst offenders in America is President Trump – in fact, if Trump says something on Twitter one can be sure that it is fake news of one sort or another. Our worst home grown example of late is the Acting PM, leader of the National Party, who in the vernacular doesn’t seem “to know his arse from his elbow.” The only way that our democracy is going to survive and prosper is if we teach young people to objectively evaluate the “news”, no matter its source and then make informed decisions based on fact. Probably an impossible task!

    • 2

      The main stream media is one of the main causes of the whole problem . Condemning one group of people for doing exactly the same as another group ,but not only were they not condemned they were praised for what they did .

  4. 5

    Who is going to make the decision what is acceptable and what is not. You would need a committee of equal numbers of right and left wing voters of all age groups. For example if I make the comment “all lives matter” I am immediately branded a racist by the left. The comment on the US election “stop the steal” is now banned on Facebook as inciting violence but there is significant evidence to show that there was voter fraud. I don’t watch the ABC anymore because I think it is far left leaning. In the past months I have never heard one good thing said about Donald Trump on any main stream channel. Who decided Trump should be banned from Twitter. Who decides what is appropriate and what is not. It is quite amazing that when BLM loot and burn for 5 months it’s called social justice but when 75 million disenfranchised Republican voters protest they are branded terrorists. Who decides this is based on your own perspective. Whatever happened to tolerance, respect and humility. George Orwell was right. Now days if you don’t follow the left wing narrative you will be punished or ostracised.

    • 2

      “Who is going to make the decision what is acceptable and what is not”
      The answer is SIMPLE!
      Just have laws such as Poland is to bring in to fine (hopefully HEAVILY) any social media company censoring LEGAL SPEECH AND OPINION!
      This law should be worldwide.

    • 2

      “there is significant evidence to show that there was voter fraud”
      … CORRECTUION: there is OVERWHELMING evidence to show that there was voter fraud.


      “As the Michigan vote result tabulation goes from 4,261,878 to 4,400,217, Biden got EVERY ONE of the 138,339 new votes, with NONE going to the 4 other candidates! Obviously, a statistical impossibility.”

      This statistical impossibility shows (in the figure above) as the vertical surge in Biden’s votes after most have been counted. Hey, Biden needed 138 thousand votes to catch up with Trump. So, the Democrats manufactured the votes he needed and gave him the votes. But…

      Fulks points out,

      “The evidence is visible in plain sight. Those who generated 138,339 votes for Joe Biden should have been smart enough to add a few votes for President Trump and a few more for minor party candidates. That would have given their fraud a more authentic appearance. But they were not that smart, and the fraud is easy to spot.”

      The counter explanation is that some areas in our inner cities vote exclusively for Democrats. That is not correct. We know that these areas may spit about 90/10 for Democrats. That is exceedingly monolithic but not completely so.

    • 2

      “there is significant evidence to show that there was voter fraud”
      … CORRECTUION: there is OVERWHELMING evidence to show that there was voter fraud.

      Just the 800,000+ ILLEGAL unobserved votes, which Republican Observers were barred from verifying, would handed Trump victory.
      Aside from other Irregularities

      The ONLY reason to stop counting votes early on election day, which happened SIMULTANEOUSLY in several TARGETTED battleground states as shown below, when Trump was on track for a landslide win, was to commit FRAUD with a massive dump of FAKE 100% Biden votes 4am the next morning!

      If the claims of election fraud were baseless, as the press wants us to believe – then the press would want them aired out in public quickly and discredited. But the ongoing censorship makes it look like the press is covering up a massive crime.

      “Drop & Roll” is the tactic the DNC used:
      Middle of night & early a.m. vote drops for BIDEN on the morning after election day 3 Nov to overcome a Trump lead.
      Not coincidence!
      IL 500k Biden vote dump at 3:36 am
      WI 140k Biden vote dump at 3:42 am
      MA 100k Biden vote dump at 3:42 am
      MN 200k Biden vote dump at 5:30 am
      GA 100k Biden vote dump at 6:30 am
      MI 130k Biden vote dump at 6:31 am
      also at + PA, AZ & NV

      This video shows the SMOKING GUN of election FRAUD!

    • 0

      Simultaneous Decision in Pennsylvania,Wisconsin,Arizona,Nevada,&Georgia to halt counting Votes was unprecedented & demonstrated a coordinated effort for FRAUD

      The ONLY reason for the six battleground states to SIMULTANEOUSLY stop counting on election night was to commit fraud with massive ballot dumps early next mrning.

  5. 1

    Social media platforms have taken far too long to ban Trump. Last Wednesday’s violence was based on a complete and utter baseless claim from him. i.e. that the election was stolen. The lies, misinformation and hate speech which emanates from him is beyond dangerous. The main reason for this is that so many idiots believe him and repeat what he says as if it’s gospel. Unfortunately, some of these people are in Australia.

    I’m disgusted that any Australian public figure would fail to censure Trump, let alone speak out in support of him. We don’t need his toxicity invading this country.

    • 0

      “I’m disgusted that any Australian public figure would fail to censure Trump, “. You will remain disgusted for a very long time then. You have no idea how international relations work.

    • 1

      KSS, you have no idea what I know about international relations. And the leaders of most civilised countries, such as the UK, Germany and NZ, have openly condemned Trump’s behaviour and blamed him for the attack on the Capitol. But our gutless wonder and his band of merry men is too much of a sycophant.

    • 2

      “I’m disgusted that any Australian public figure would fail to censure Trump” … For what?

      Please quote Trump’s EXACT WORDS inciting an insurrection or hate … [crickets

    • 0

      “Social media platforms have taken far too long to ban Trump.” …

      Fear not my son.
      I hear that Joe Biden is to create a Ministry of Truth with Twitter & Facebook as top advisors.

      Happy now?

      ALSO: Can’t remember any MSM/Leftie outrage when anti-Kavanaugh protesters stormed the Capitol a few years back.

    • 0

      I’m disgusted that any Australian public figure would fail to censure Trump” …

      Warning! … engage brain before spouting.
      Otherwise censuring of the innocent is likely!

      Looks like Antifa/BLM are the culprits for the violence as they tried to smear Trump.

      One of the men who was part of the siege of the Capitol building is John Earle Sullivan, an extreme BLM activist from Utah. He was arrested & charged in July 2020 over a BLM-antifa riot where drivers in Provo were threatened & one was shot.

    • 0

      I have never heard of a US presidential candidate being so far ahead in the vote and to be so far behind in overnight counting really? and that doesn’t raise the question of something is amiss?

  6. 3

    Trump is only guilty of asking his supporters to stage a protest march to Capitol Hill not to break in and that he loved them and they were true supporters of America and believed that there was voter fraud.

  7. 2

    Trump is an ignorant megalomaniac who opens his mouth before putting brain into gear! Heaven help the world if any other like him gets to voice similar sentiments. Of course his remarks should be censored unless they can be edited by superior intellects before being uttered.

    • 1

      “they can be edited by superior intellects before being uttered.”
      BREAKING: Sleepy Joe Biden to create a Ministry of Truth with Twitter & Facebook as top advisors. [SHUDDER]
      How prescient of Orwell!

    • 2

      “Hopefully it would fix the right wing maniacs” …
      Not sure what you mean, but those laws would definitely stop hardLEFT Twitter/Facebook censoring LEGAL SPEECH AND OPINION both left and right.
      You do advocate free speech right?
      Or are you part of the INTOLERANT LEFT?

    • 0

      If that is the case why weren’t the Harris and Pelosi comments censored when they called for more protests across the US when the BLM and ANTIFA were running riot in the streets burning their communities businesses and murdering innocent people and police officers really and you reckon Trump is an ignorant megalomaniac WOW

  8. 5

    Where does censorship stop, who decides what should be censored?

    Is it an attack on free speech when the Ugandan government is blocking social media like Twitter ahead of their upcoming election? Countries like China and North Korea take a hard line with censorship, just ask Jack Ma if you can find him after he made negative comments about the CCP.

    In the free world the selective censorship seems in many instances to unbalanced and decided by big tech companies. If there are going to be bans and censorship it should be guided by fair laws and regulations.

  9. 3

    Interesting how there is a clamour to insist social media sites should take responsibility to moderate posts promoting hate and violence but when a serial hate and conspiracy poster is blocked there is an immediate outcry.
    Strange how many of of the conspirators are obiese old men; Trump, Kelly, Christensen, Latham and Palmer supported by Morrison. Maybe too fat and lazy to seek out the facts.

  10. 2

    What a primitive and stone age political system America has, as far as I know there is no other country that has an election when the results are known and then trust the outgoing president for another few months to leave peacefully.
    Wake up and come into the present age where dictators can do as they please.
    The fact that trumpy can even pardon his crooked family and himself is just a joke to the rest of the world.
    Wake up America and do not continue to be a laughing stock to the rest of the world.
    I would not trust a system where the one with the most money can put up as a candidate for the boss of the so called most powerful and smartest country in the world.
    Surely there must be smarter people capable of being president.
    Just as here as in Australia as well.
    If byden had cheated he would won by a bigger margin.

    • 1

      The delay in taking office is historical. In ages past, it took about three months for the incoming President elect to arrange for his household and all his belongings to be transported across the USA. Unfortunately, although times have changed and this can (and is) arranged in days, the same delay is kept. And don’t forget it was only last Thursday (should have been Wednesday but there was an interruption) that Mr Biden was ratified as having won the election!

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