First Amendment

Trump Is the Problem, With or Without Twitter

If people think cancel culture sucks now, just wait until the government gets involved.


Kamala Harris has asked Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to suspend President Donald Trump's account. In an October 1 letter, the California senator and 2020 presidential candidate told Dorsey that Trump had violated Twitter's terms of service. Specifically, she suggested that Trump's recent tweets about civil war, the Ukraine call whistleblower, and Rep. Adam Schiff (D–Calif.) violate Twitter's prohibitions on engaging in "targeted harassment," inciting violence, the "glorification of violence," and attempts "to harass, intimidate, or silence someone else's voice."

Trump's tweets are many things—irresponsible, divisive, and unbecoming of a president, to say the very least. His posts accusing Schiff of treason and suggesting he should be arrested (for comments Schiff made on the House floor recently) may even be unconstitutional. Other tweets may prove good fodder for the Trump impeachment case.

But the proper place for evaluating Trump's tweets and holding him responsible for them is through governmental and legal institutions. This isn't a call that Dorsey should have to unilaterally make.

Imagine if Dorsey did kick Trump off Twitter or suspend his account. The outrageand the opportunity for Trump and conservatives to claim "Big Tech" bias and censorshipwould, of course, be huge. The lawsuits would be long. And, because of Harris' involvement, justified. Government officials can't just go around demanding that private companies cancel their opponents' accounts.

"Let's stipulate that Donald Trump's Twitter feed is a dumpster fire of outrage and that a case could easily be made that he routinely violates what Twitter quaintly calls its 'community standards,'" writes Charles Sykes at The Bulwark. Twitter suspending his account is still "a terrible idea, not least for the gift it would be to Trump."

Without a Twitter account, Trump would certainly find a way to get his garbled grievances out still. Twitter is not the problem, Trump is.

"Banning Trump from Twitter would only fuel his already unhealthy persecution complex and offer yet another victimization narrative for him to exploit," becoming "an effective way to fundraise (via Facebook ads) for his reelection campaign," writes Christine Rosen at Commentary.

Trump's "penchant for policy-making (and policy bumbling) via Twitter has been a constant source of aggravation to his advisers since he took office," Rosen points out. And yet it comes with the upside of transparencya glimpse into "his id" and "a useful barometer of his mood."

Some people suggest that Twitter giving Trump enough rope to hang himself, so to speak, is a good thing. But Ian Sams, Harris' communications director, says "it isn't about 'helping Trump' or not."

"It's about protecting our country," Sams tweeted. "When Giuliani spreads conspiracies and when Trump attacks and threatens a whistleblower, we can't just let it all happen. Truth and democracy are at stake here."

Sams is right that how this helps or hurts Trumpor Harris, or the fortunes of anyone in officeis beside the point (even if it can be a happy byproduct). But the beyond-politics approach dictates that candidates, Congress, and other authorities stay entirely out of who gets to speak online (and where).

Neither Twitter nor any other private tech companies have to provide public officials with a platform to speak. What the First Amendment does require is for these officials, and anyone else speaking with the authority of the state behind them, to avoid even so much as the appearance of pressuring private actors to suppress certain speech, including—or perhaps especially—when that speech involves their political opponents.