World Events

After the Capitol riot, a troubling debate over free speech and political payback

As House Democrats move to impeach a president who leaves office in eight days, the repercussions of the Capitol riot are fueling a debate over free speech, social media, and cancel culture. 

It’s impossible not to be shaken by the new reporting and videos of what happened last Wednesday, which shows how close we came to a devastating massacre by armed terrorists determined to kill lawmakers and even the vice president. The sight of a Capitol policeman being beaten with an American flag, and a brave officer who led a mob away from the Senate chamber, is beyond revolting.

The criticism of President Trump’s conduct from the left and right, regardless of whether impeachment makes sense as Joe Biden prepares to take office, is totally understandable. 


But whether Twitter should be permanently barring Trump, or companies should be pressured not to hire anyone associated with him, are much more difficult questions.

Most journalists are celebrating the Twitter ban (and the indeterminate Facebook ban) as an unalloyed triumph over a president they have been battling for four years. To even raise a question about it, as I have learned, is to be yelled at as defending someone who incited a terrorist attack.

But while the temporary bans were more defensible, journalists above all should be concerned about free speech. Is Jack Dorsey’s company barring private citizen Trump from tweeting because he may organize another insurrection, or as payback against a president who tried to eliminate legal immunity for social media giants?

Is it just a coincidence that Twitter is dumping Trump, who generated so much traffic and revenue, just as the Democrats are about to take over the White House and Congress?

And that brings us to Twitter’s reputation. Conservatives have long complained about bias by Twitter and its Silicon Valley brethren, especially during the campaign, when tweets by Trump and his campaign and allies were blocked or labeled but no action ever seems to be taken against prominent Democrats. 

Yes, these are private companies, so there’s no First Amendment issue, but social media platforms have become the new public square. They benefit from federal regulation. Choking off voices has serious consequences, and if it was left-wingers being exiled, I suspect you’d see far more journalistic outrage.

How on earth does Twitter justify banning Trump for incitement, but taking no action against the thousands of users who said “Hang Mike Pence,” allowing it to become a trending topic? Or allowing foreign autocrats to spew lies and threats?

Equally questionable is how tech rivals pulled the plug on Parler, which became a conservative haven by billing itself as an alternative free-speech platform.

Again, I’m not defending the threatening messages that were allowed to proliferate on Parler, like this one: “Prepare Our weapons, and then go get ’em. Let’s hunt down these cowards like the Traitors that each of them are. This includes, RINOs, Dems and Tech Execs.”

But Parler’s CEO says his policy was to attempt to remove such violent posts. And when Apple, Google, and Amazon pulled the digital rug out from under Parler — in some cases giving the firm 24 hours to clean up its act — it felt like a foregone conclusion. Chief executive John Matze says this is a case of Big Tech squashing the competition.

Elsewhere in the corporate world, the PGA has pulled its 2022 championship from Trump’s New Jersey course, and a slew of companies say they won’t donate to Republicans who challenged the electoral results. That’s their right; they can vote with their wallets.


But it goes further when the Lincoln Project says it will spend big bucks on a campaign targeting companies that backed Trump and certain Republicans, even law firms that represented them. 

Forbes’ editor, Randall Lane, issued a public warning marked by photos of Kellyanne Conway, Sean Spicer, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Kayleigh McEnany: “Hire any of Trump’s fellow fabulists above, and Forbes will assume that everything your company or firm talks about is a lie. We’re going to scrutinize, double-check, investigate with the same skepticism we’d approach a Trump tweet.”

Politicians are fair game, they put themselves in the arena and their reputations at risk.

But what if you’re an administrative assistant at a company whose PAC made political donations, or a paralegal at a law firm where only a couple of the partners did work for Republicans? This could get pretty ugly.

The point about these debates on free speech and political retaliation is that things look very different when the target is people on your side. I fully believe in accountability for those associated with last week’s appalling attack on American democracy. But there’s the potential for an awful lot of collateral damage here.


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