Slouching toward autocracy. President Donald Trump has been threatening to crush a private company for mildly questioning his authority.
On Tuesday, Twitter tacitly called out Trump's baseless, fearmongering tweet about mail-in voting by posting a small blue exclamation point beneath it with the words "Get the facts about mail-in ballots" and a link.
It was the first time Twitter has used this new fact-check option. A political statement? Surely. But in no way an illegal one. As a private company, Twitter does not owe anyone—even the president—a platform, and has no requirement to stay mum or neutral about anything that users post.
Likewise, as a private company, it can "censor" government officials however it wishes, with no imperative to do so in a way that is unbiased. Just as Saturday Night Live can be biased in who it skewers, a bookstore can be biased in what material it stocks, or a bakery can be biased in what messages its cakes carry, Twitter can be biased in what accounts it chooses to allow, what messages it chooses to broadcast, and what addendum to these messages it chooses to post.
This is the beauty of the First Amendment: It provides broad protection and leeway for private actors, be they individuals or corporations. Under the First Amendment, a government official can't legally censor a private corporation or individual.
Yet that's exactly the unconstitutional move Trump is now threatening with Twitter.
Following a perverse and nonsensical allegation that Twitter is somehow stifling his "free speech" despite regularly providing a platform for him to instantaneously reach a global audience, Trump last night tweeted:
I, as President, will not allow it to happen!
This morning, Trump took it one step further, directly stating that he would close down social media companies that use their First Amendment rights in a way he doesn't like.
"Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices," Trump tweeted Wednesday morning. "We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen."
Trump has absolutely no authority to do this, and any attempt to do so would be blatantly unconstitutional and basically laughed out of court. That's the good news.
Threatening to shutter (or "strongly regulate") websites that don't publish favored political views is a threat to violate the First Amendment. https://t.co/1yIyk5l1wF
— Adam Steinbaugh (@adamsteinbaugh) May 27, 2020
The obvious bad news is that we have a leader who thinks—or wants his supporters to think—that he has unilateral authority to decide which private businesses may operate, as well as to compel speech from private actors and to decide what permissible bounds of communication on the internet are.
Trump's addled tweets and more rabid fans routinely champion all sorts of fascist and autocratic claims, and this latest round is no exception. It's still unnerving to see self-professed champions of constitutional limits and free enterprise so eager to defend abandoning the First Amendment to soothe the president's ego and a government takeover of private business.
Following Trump's outburst last night Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.) once again tried to confuse people into thinking Twitter is acting illegally. "The law still protects social media companies like @Twitter because they are considered forums not publishers," tweeted Rubio.
This is not correct. The First Amendment protects Twitter regardless of what word Rubio uses to describe it.
If social media companies "have now decided to exercise an editorial role like a publisher then they should no longer be shielded from liability & treated as publishers under the law," Rubio continued. He's referencing Section 230, which some have referred to as the internet's First Amendment. You can find out more about it here and here. The important points for our purposes are:
• Section 230 says no such thing, no matter how many times conservative politicians insist it does.
• Even if Section 230 didn't exist, private social media companies (no matter what you call them!) would still have a First Amendment right to make decisions about speech.
In short: It's illegal for Rubio, Trump, or anyone else in power to censor Twitter and it's perfectly legal for Twitter to censor Trump, Rubio, or any other government official.
This is the leading indicator 2020 deserves. https://t.co/3avkilpU8U
— Walter Olson ???? (@walterolson) May 26, 2020
• Four Minnesota police officers involved in the killing of George Floyd have been fired, the city announced yesterday. "Floyd died Monday after a bystander video showed him begging for air while a police officer held a knee to his neck," as Reason's Zuri Davis reported. More here.
• Cops fired rubber bullets and shot tear gas at people protesting Floyd's murder:
I Was just shot with this in the thigh. pic.twitter.com/igcJ3e7iQ4
— Andy Mannix (@AndrewMannix) May 27, 2020
Here are the latest photos from @CarlosGphoto coming in from the protest march over George Floyd's death, which turned into a clash between Minneapolis police and protesters. #georgefloyd https://t.co/pmcMibimEj pic.twitter.com/YMLKQS0Jhk
— Star Tribune (@StarTribune) May 27, 2020