One of the favorite tactics of Donald Trump and those who defend him is diversion. When criticized, attack the critic personally. Don’t accept fault; shift the conversation elsewhere, even if it’s false and-or unrelated.
We learned that early in Trump’s climb to political power. When confronted by the damning Access Hollywood video, he and his followers cried, “What about Hillary’s emails?”
Last week he and others incited a riot that defiled our nation’s Capitol, threatened a constitutional process and resulted in the murder of a police officer. The gravity of that event opened many eyes, but the Trumpsters want the focus to be elsewhere.
For good reason, too: so much video proves that this was no ordinary protest. Their first response is: “Well, what about BLM and the violence in Portland, Minneapolis and other places?”
Let’s put aside that argument for now.
Trump and others undermined our democracy before and after the attack, in large part by using social media. The rally that preceded it only signaled the time to take action. (Trump said, “I’ll be right there with you,” but of course he retreated to the safety of the White House to watch the mess he created unfold on television.)
Some social media companies, principally Twitter and Facebook, have shut down the accounts of Trump because of his incendiary messages. Not having Twitter to spread lies and attack others is an especially hard blow to him.
But does this violate his First Amendment rights?
Let’s remember specifically what our First Amendment says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
This law so critical to our nation guarantees that government cannot take away our freedoms of speech, religion, the press, peaceful assembly or petition. Government cannot force a business to provide a soapbox for any individual, even the president.
The press is the only American business protected by the Constitution.
If you submit a letter to the editor of this newspaper, it may be considered for publication. It may be refused – for any reason or no reason. The newspaper’s publisher is a private business with the right to determine its content. Refusing to publish your letter is not censorship. If a government agency prohibited the newspaper from publishing the letter, that would be censorship and a violation of the newspaper’s First Amendment right.
Throughout most of our history, newspapers and other so-called traditional media (magazines, radio and television) have closely monitored their own speech and that of people who submit speech for publication or broadcast. They have done so on both ethical and legal grounds. For instance, publishing a letter from one who claims another individual has committed a crime is not only unfair but also could result in a libel action.
None of that violates the writer’s right of free speech. He or she can still submit the same letter to other publications or to other individuals, or even post it on bulletin boards.
Government attempts to regulate the press have consistently failed. One exception was the Fairness Doctrine, under which government applied some sanctions to broadcast media from 1927 until its elimination in 2011.
That worked fairly well until the Internet came along and “social media” were born. Some might argue that social media are not “the press,” as protected under the First Amendment. But even newspapers have been moving away from the printing press as a means of delivery. In fact, you can probably read this newspaper on the Internet.
There is a significant difference, though, in much of what we find on the Internet. Unlike this newspaper, Twitter, Facebook and platforms have made few attempts to “moderate” the speech they carry – in other words to edit submissions for facts, false claims, personal attacks and the like. The anonymity of the Web makes it more dangerous, less accountable.
We’ve seen common efforts, both domestically and from abroad, of Internet players who want to influence, disrupt and even foment dissension in our country.
But none of that disqualifies social media from First Amendment protection, or at least it has not to this point. Americans, for better or worse, are getting more and more of their information and opinions from online sources.
Twitter is different from the Colorado baker, whose religious objection to bake a cake for a gay couple was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Twitter is a business with the same First Amendment protection as this newspaper. Thus, government can’t force Twitter to carry the messages of a president, which it has deemed incendiary.
If you allow that to happen, you have no free speech.
Trump’s speech has hardly been suppressed. He can call a press conference at any time and spread his message far and wide. A network, though, can refuse to air it.
Our problem with social media is that so many of its players have been irresponsible in not moderating their content. Perhaps that will change because of this transgression. Government can’t fix the problem, but the marketplace can.
Roy Ockert is a former editor of The Jonesboro Sun, The Courier at Russellville and The Batesville Guard. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.