Trump and Free Speech

It’s a measure of how strongly I believe in free speech that I almost feel that Facebook should allow Donald Trump back on their platform. (Emphasis here on almost.)

Yesterday, Facebook’s Oversight Board told the company that it has to decide within the next six months what to do about Trump: ban him permanently, allow him back on or some hybrid.

Trump is an outlier, not to mention an out and out liar. There’s no bottom to the depth of my contempt for the man. The violent and deadly insurrection that he inspired was only the physical manifestation of the damage he has done to our democratic institutions and our political culture.

So, giving him another platform to spew his lies and inanity and to inspire hate across America is not a good thing for our country.

“I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.” — Oscar Wilde

And yet… here’s the thing. If we have such respect for free speech that we would allow even the likes of Donald Trump to say what he wants, in whatever forum he wants, then that would protect that right for anyone who had views that were not as unhinged — which is to say most of us.

Defending free speech only really matters when that speech is unpopular to most and deplorable to some. “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Justice William Brennan wrote that in a 1989 decision defending the right of a man to burn the American flag.

While Trump never burned a flag, he certainly defiled everything that flag stands for; he did far worse damage to America than the defendant in that old flag burning case. So, by defending Trump’s right to say awful things wouldn’t that be consistent with the idea that when we defend the rights of the outliers we strengthen our own rights?

Yes, but of course we have to balance that with the damage Trump can do to our democracy and our society. In the end, if the question were one of government interference with Trump’s speech, I’d still come down in favor of the loud mouth.

But that’s not what the question is here. Facebook is not the government — despite what you may have heard. It’s a private entity, something like a newspaper, though famously, not exactly like a newspaper thanks to Section 230. Newspapers aren’t required to print every letter they get just as there’s nothing stopping me from not posting your comments on this site. Facebook isn’t required to give Trump, or anyone else, a voice.

And, of course, Trump has other outlets. He can go on Fox News and he can issue his rants in the form of press releases. He can email his supporters. He can write opeds in friendly publications. He can give speeches. He’s hardly being silenced.

In the end, that’s what makes me okay with Facebook’s decision to ban him and it’s what would make me alright if they ultimately decide to make the ban permanent.

But I’m not enthusiastic about it. What makes me uneasy is the tendency toward silencing dissent in our current political culture. Liz Cheney is being punished for daring to tell the truth about the last election. The academic left is becoming increasingly intolerant of any view that isn’t orthodox. Despite the threat he poses, I almost want to see Facebook reinstate Trump just because of the strong message it would send about speech tolerance in society that is beyond the reach of the government.

Oscar Wilde wrote, “I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.” Donald Trump is taking that right to its extreme. But he can continue to make an ass of himself in multiple forums. On balance, it’s probably best to keep him off social media.

3 thoughts on “Trump and Free Speech

  1. I’m sorry Dave, you’ve slipped off the slope here. I say this because you cite no principle for the Trump exclusion. If you cite no principle for your decision, your decision is arbitrary and based on opinion. As is FBs. If we are a society based on the rule of law, founded in the Constitution, there is no place for arbitrary applications of a ban on free speech.

    In a democracy, people get to choose who their representatives are. In an oligarchy, they don’t. We do not. (See the Princeton study if a reminder is necessary.) It will be the Democrats’ legacy, my forecast, that our current oligarchy will turn much further towards totalitarianism and it will be fueled by decisions like the one you espouse here.

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    1. I’m not sure how much I’m espousing it. I have, as noted, plenty of reservations. I just think that — on balance — Trump poses such a threat to American democracy that his ban from social media is justified. And, of course, he still has plenty of other less incendiary avenues to get his messages out. I see the slippery slope, though, and it does make me uneasy.

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      1. I am very glad to see your reservations.

        It’s the ‘such a threat to American democracy’ comment that could be easily used against any voice that those in power find problematic. Is Trump or anyone else an imminent threat to democracy? The answer is simple imo. Particularly because a large percentage of the country voted for him.

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