Twitter recently suspended the account of Milo Yiannopoulos, a conservative media celebrity and Donald Trump mega-fan, over allegations that he had coordinated the sexist and racist harassment of “Ghostbusters” star Leslie Jones. Yiannopoulos has emerged as a leader of the “alt-right,” the social media-driven insurgent conservative movement that has challenged the Republican old guard and drawn fierce criticism for its vulgarity as well as its embrace of anti-Semitism. Yiannopoulos’ fans, predictably, have responded to his suspension with an outburst of invective and anger, accusing Twitter of pandering to liberal sensitivities. Twitter is just one social media service, albeit an influential one. But the bigger dynamic at play here – the necessity of fighting harassment while maintaining robust defenses of free expression – pertains to the world of contemporary politics writ large.
But Twitter’s maddening inconsistency in enforcing its policies makes the issue more complicated. For years, Twitter has ignored appalling behavior on the service, shrugging off reports of racial slurs, sexist insults and even threats. For example, extremist groups such as the Somali terrorist organization al-Shabaab have used the service to publicly discuss targets for violence, and yet their accounts often remain open for long periods, even after they’ve been flagged by other users. Meanwhile, Twitter has suspended low-profile accounts for relatively petty violations or, sometimes, for no stated reason at all. (Twitter does not always provide justifications for its suspensions.) If there are objective criteria for what constitutes harassment on Twitter, or for what actions warrant suspension, they’re not apparent.
It wasn’t pure paranoia, then, that made Yiannopoulosand his supporters suspect liberal bias—a possibility most left-wing commentators shrugged off. They were only too glad to see him go, and were characteristically uninterested in defending an ideological opponent’s right to speak.
What happens when anti-harassment complaints aren’t made against people like Yanniapoulos, but against controversial progressive figures?
I was glad to see him go, too, yet I find it troubling that progressives in recent years have become fond of insisting that censorship applies only to government action, and that no one has a “right” to free speech in a private setting. Student activists at Scripps College in California, for instance, successfully lobbied school administrators to rescind an invitation to conservative columnist George Will to speak on campus; the CEO of the Web company Mozilla, Brendan Eich, resigned under intense public criticism for his prior support for California’s anti-gay marriage bill, Proposition 8; and the public relations executive Justine Sacco was fired from her job for making an off-color, racially charged joke on Twitter. In each case, many progressives argued that since the government had not taken these actions, no one’s free speech rights were abridged.
In a limited sense, it’s true that the 1st Amendment protects us only from government incursion. But in terms of the broader ideals that shape an open society, this attitude is unworkable. Such a narrowly defined right to expression could be devastating – including to progressives. Should an employer feel free to fire an at-will employee because he put a Democratic campaign sign on his front lawn? Or a Planned Parenthood sticker on his car?
In most places around the country, there is no law to prohibit employers from doing so. What defends the average worker is merely a norm of free political expression. It’s precisely that norm that progressives seek to undermine when they insist that only government actions can constitute an unfair infringement of free speech. This is a particularly strange position for them to take, as it has long been progressives who have highlighted the perils of private coercion, such as coercion in the workplace, while conservatives have tended to argue that only the state can meaningfully coerce a citizen.
Odder still, progressives seem to assume that they will always benefit from restricting speech in this way. But what happens when anti-harassment complaints aren’t made against people like Yiannopoulos, but against controversial progressive figures, such as Palestinian rights activists?
Ultimately, the question of how to prevent harassment, while maintaining a robust respect for free expression, will have to be negotiated socially, with everyone muddling together to find the proper balance. Twitter and other institutions must communicate the nature of that balance transparently, then enforce it consistently and objectively, or risk opening themselves up to opportunistic charges of bias.
Fredrik DeBoer is a writer and academic. He lives in Indiana.