WashU Expert: Trump attacks on Twitter betray free speech principles

On Trump’s censor threat: ‘No more blatant and frightening violation of the First Amendment is possible’

When President Donald Trump made unsubstantiated claims on Twitter May 26 about mail-in voting, it fact-checked him — inserting beneath his tweets a hyperlink to more information on the subject.

President Trump then accused Twitter of “totally silenc[ing] conservatives [sic] voices” and threatened that “[w]e will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen.”

“The president appears to have no understanding of or concern for free speech,” said Greg Magarian, the Thomas and Karole Greene Professor of Law and a constitutional law expert at Washington University in St. Louis.

“The president of the United States is threatening to censor social media platforms because he doesn’t like what they say.

“No more blatant and frightening violation of the First Amendment is possible,” he said. “The core of the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee bars government from restricting speech based on viewpoint. If the Trump administration makes any effort to regulate Twitter, even in ways that would not appear to violate the First Amendment, Twitter’s lawyers can and should point to the president’s threats as evidence of unconstitutional animus.”

What about free speech by Trump and conservatives?

“Twitter is a private company. Under basic First Amendment principles, Twitter can say what it wants and edit as it pleases,” Magarian said. “However, Twitter is also a distinctly powerful platform for speech. Some people argue that Twitter should have some obligation to protect and respect free speech principles, and those arguments have weight.”

But Twitter’s decision to provide links to additional facts does not violate free speech principles, Magarian said.

“In fact, what Twitter did promotes free speech,” he said. “Twitter has faced frequent, sharp public criticisms for taking no action when users post false, misleading and harmful statements. In this case, Twitter let Trump have his say. Twitter then made an editorial judgment that publishing the president’s unsubstantiated claims about an important public issue justified giving Twitter’s users easy access to more information about that issue. Free speech principles are supposed to promote debate and make us more informed. Twitter did exactly that.

“The president’s response to Twitter’s action broadly calls into question conservatives’ constant complaints that ‘political correctness’ and (in Trump’s words) ‘the lamestream media’ silence right-wing speech,” Magarian added. “Conservatives have used communications technology very effectively to promote their viewpoints. What does it say when, facing the mildest and most constructive imaginable form of criticism, the conservative president threatens to censor his critics? Perhaps it says that conservatives like Trump don’t really care about the free speech of anyone but themselves.”

Social media platforms should promote free speech, Magarian said.

“They should try to prevent misinformation, especially government propaganda, in ways that do not stifle the free exchange of ideas,” he said. “The government must not use its power to attack ideas it objects to. What Trump has said and done today betrays every one of those simple, crucial free speech principles.”

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