Elon Musk’s release of Twitter’s records to journalist Matt Taibbi that revealed a content moderation decision by Twitter to delete the Hunter Biden laptop story continues to set off a chain of recriminations. Some fevered reactions call into question basic constitutional principles.
For example, former President Trump publicly posted (and later tried to walk back) a statement saying that such an act of censorship is one of several reasons to “terminate” provisions of the U.S. Constitution. That bit of histrionics aside, what does the Constitution actually say about the rights of Twitter and its users?
Twitter as a private company is not bound by the First Amendment: it can freely decide to post or remove content. The decision to remove an article with political content in the shadow of a presidential election did not violate the letter of the law. But it did arguably violate First Amendment principles.
Leave it to progressive Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) to remind us in a recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal the once-banal but seemingly lost truth that the Constitution and its freedom of speech works for all people, in every direction, all the time.
Rep. Khanna wrote: “Defending free speech is easy when it’s speech you agree with. Defending speech you dislike, or speech that doesn’t advance your interests, is more challenging. But it is in exactly those uncomfortable situations that American democratic principles call on us to protect the free exchange of ideas and freedom of the press.”
Rep. Khanna points to the seminal 1964 Supreme Court case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan that debate on public issues should be “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” Even though this debate may “include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials,” that is no cause for censorship.
Certainly, Twitter and any other social media company have an absolute First Amendment right to manage content and to exclude the Kanye Wests of the world. But with size should come acceptance of responsibility.
Khanna’s position is not posturing after the fact. Twitter’s records reveal that when the censorship occurred, Khanna wrote to Twitter’s general counsel saying that the company’s actions “seemed to be a violation of First Amendment principles.”
Rep. Khanna has it just right. Twitter’s removal of the content was a violation of the principles and spirit of the First Amendment, even if not an actionable violation of the law. The principles of the First Amendment are foundational to who we are as Americans. They should be for social media companies as well.
Protect The 1st commends Congressman Ro Khanna for standing up for speech – even when it is uncomfortable.