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.