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Column | Free speech offers protection from government; not free market

By Lisa Pett

I remember an old saying when I was in a journalism class in college: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend your right to say it.”

But this was 1990; pre-internet, pre-social media. My J-law classes covered the First Amendment extensively. I learned that the truth makes a good defense against libel or slander. You can even shout “FIRE!” in a crowded theater, but only if the theater is ACTUALLY ON FIRE.

We have this wonderful document called the Bill of Rights, which enshrines our civil liberties into the very fabric of our governmental system. However, we are a republic—a representational democracy that is built on the tenets of unfettered capitalism and embraces Free Market principles.

So Freedom of Speech, as one of our civil liberties is very much protected by the government—“Congress shall make no law…yadda, yadda, yadda…” But what about corporations? Free speech in the United States is protected BY the government FROM the government. Not so much the free market.

While I am ambivalent about banning the President from Social Media, make no mistake, he, and the pundits and the legislators crying foul over his de-platforming are barking up the entirely wrong tree when they talk of censorship. They’re not even in the same forest.

Anyone who has their own press briefing room, a press secretary, a pool of reporters who follows them around and has the bully pulpit of the presidency is, in no way, shape, or form being silenced, censored, or treated unfairly when they violate a code of conduct, a user agreement, and even every modern code of decency, and lose their social media accounts.

By every platform embraced by the Republican Party–small government and less corporate regulation, they cannot blame corporations for wanting to protect their financial, political, and social interests by banning someone who can no longer distinguish fact from his own fevered fantasies.

For five years, President Trump operated without anyone to gainsay him on social media. He broke every civil, cultural, and political norm in existence. Rather than walk down the halls of the West Wing and stand up in front of reporters who are required to ask him difficult questions, he took the lazy way out. He tweeted. And tweeted. And tweeted. 

I have a Twitter account. I have less than 900 followers. So when I compose a tweet, I sometimes air my opinions and thoughts, but I have never outright told a lie. Not even a little white fib. I was banned once for three days once for saying something I would have happily said to the person’s face—but I don’t create fantasies out of whole cloth to further my own agenda. Because in my personal and professional life (as a writer and as a journalist) the worth of my words was measured by the truth behind them. 

That’s where we’ve reached the bottom of the barrel with social media. Without standards, without moderators, without someone to hold you accountable, people can say anything—truth be damned.

Twenty years ago, I was a member of a message board called Television Without Pity. It was a moderated board where people talked about television shows they liked; before Facebook, Twitter, etc., message boards were a socialized form of communication about common interests and topics. TWoP’s moderators instituted a rule for posting: You could not start a post with the word, “Um…” 

I’m not kidding. Use of the word “um” could get your post deleted and get you kicked off the board. Why the rule? Too many snarky comments. “Um: made people sound sarcastic and rude. Can you imagine?”

Needless to say, I didn’t stick around. I wasn’t paying for the server space so I had no right to complain. The internet is like a big cocktail party. Some corners are more interesting. But you can’t come into someone else’s home, urinate in the punchbowl, spit in the guacamole, punch out a few guests, tell a bunch of lies about the hosts, and then expect people to keep you around.

That doesn’t stop you from hosting your own party. Buy a server, code a message board. Start a blog. Write a column for the local paper. Stand on the corner in your bathrobe and shout at traffic.

Participating in a public forum requires rules of decency and codes of conduct. When you’re not following those, don’t be surprised when they show you the door. And this isn’t just talking about television. This isn’t a low stakes conversation. This is Democracy with a capital D. The foundation of our country. Which relies on truth.

As much as a dislike de-platforming someone—anyone, really—it’s not curbing your right to exercise free speech. It’s just not letting you tell lies on someone else’s time or money.

So the right to free speech is guaranteed in the Constitution. But not the means for delivering it.

Lisa Pett is a resident of Hull