Donald Trump and the Limits of Free Speech

The right to free speech is a negative right. It guarantees you the right to be left alone, to speak your mind. But it does not give others an obligation to lend you their printing press.

January 13, 2021 • Commentary

This article originally appeared on The Spectator on January 12, 2021.

Is Donald Trump’s expulsion from Twitter an attack on free speech? A great many Republicans are saying so. You certainly can call it ‘deplatforming’: when you lose your speaking invite, your social media posting rights or your book deal. Josh Hawley, a Republican Senator, has claimed that his First Amendment rights were violated by Simon & Schuster when they decided not to publish his book. It’s a problematic definition, since it means that Simon & Schuster are also violating my free speech by not publishing my books. And in fact, the rights of most aspiring authors on the planet.

But of course, the First Amendment expressly refers to laws made by Congress abridging the freedom of speech. It stops the government from punishing people for their opinions. It does not mean that Simon & Schuster or Twitter — or The Spectator – has an obligation to publish them. And that’s how free speech has usually been seen in the Western Enlightenment tradition, as one of our human rights that are upheld when we abstain from interfering in the lives of others.

Think of it as a distinction between negative rights (that grant you liberty, and prevent you from encroachment) and positive rights (things you are entitled to access). This borrows language from Adam Smith. ‘Mere justice is, upon most occasions, but a negative virtue, and only hinders us from hurting our neighbor’, he wrote in 1759, ‘We may often fulfill all the rules of justice by sitting still and doing nothing.’ To Smith, these negative rights guarantee you freedom from interference and persecution. But this is separate from the rights that you have to things: ie. platforms and op‐​ed pages that you think you need to reach an audience.

The right to free speech is a negative right. It guarantees you the right to be left alone, to speak your mind. But it does not give others an obligation to lend you their printing press.

Isaiah Berlin’s essay, Two Concepts of Liberty, from 1958 is the most famous description of the distinction. He traced the negative definition to Locke and Constant and the positive definition to Plato and Rousseau. When Unesco looked at the UN declaration of human rights after the second world war it actually admitted that it dealt with two opposite theories of rights, the negative one, based on ‘premises of inherent individual rights’, and the positive one, ‘based on Marxist principles.’

The Rousseauan Right thinks that Twitter violates their freedom of speech when they are blocked from it. But Twitter is private property. It has provided you with a megaphone that you would not have if it did not exist, which it never had an obligation to do. If it decides to withdraw the megaphone, you are free to talk without it, or to get another one, or even build your own.

hat does not mean that it is a good idea to deplatform. I don’t think that free speech is enough. For society to thrive and for our minds not to stagnate we also need a culture of openness, where we are exposed to a wide variety of ideas. Even (perhaps especially) those we consider mistaken, stupid or even malign. And there is a special rung in squealer hell for those who take any tweet they disagree with to the writers’ employer to demand disciplinary action.

In this difficult moment for the American Republic, it might even be dangerous to lose the window into Donald Trump’s soul that his Twitter account has been. And that goes for most of his more radical followers as well. Pushing anger underground rarely calms the situation.

On the other hand, when things take a violent turn — and companies find that they have been used to promote conspiracy theories and incite hatred — I understand it gets complicated.

So in a few instances, removal might be reasonable. But if it goes too far, it undermines the diversity that made these platforms valuable. Perhaps it’s a terrible and counterproductive mistake. But whatever it is, it is not a violation of free speech. Not in the Lockean Enlightenment tradition, at least.

You are still free to shout ‘fire’, but not in my crowded theatre, please.

About the Author
Johan Norberg

Johan Norberg is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a writer who focuses on globalization, entrepreneurship, and individual liberty.