After Donald Trump’s populist rhetoric on Twitter encouraged his supporters to storm into the U.S. Capitol building on the 6th of January 2021, he has been permanently banned from Twitter and several other social media platforms. On Friday, January 8th, Twitter released a statement explaining their rationale for making this decision, stating that “after close review of the recent Tweets from @realDonaldTrump and the context around them, specifically how they are received and interpreted off Twitter we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence.” It is clear that Twitter’s decision was not arbitrary, but stemmed from Donald Trump’s continuous abuse of Twitter’s community guidelines. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey also spoken out to reiterate how difficult the decision to ban Trump was as his content had been long regarded as “newsworthy.” He continued to place emphasis on the importance of adhering to Twitter’s guidelines by stating that “offline harm as a result of online speech is demonstrably real and what drives our policy and enforcement above all.” Whilst most understand the importance of censoring individuals such as Mr. Trump (as there is a blatant correlation between his tweets and the Capitol riot on January 6th), many still argue that Twitter’s actions were not only illegal (as it supposedly infringes on former President Trump’s First Amendment rights), but also a hindrance to an effective democracy.
Having stated the controversy surrounding Donald Trump’s ban, it is integral to investigate whether the claims of First Amendment breaching are actually illegal or whether this is mere speculation. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution “provides that congress make no law respecting an establishment or religion or prohibiting its free exercise. It protects freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and the right to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Here, the language used in the First Amendment proves that in order to violate an individual’s First Amendment right, you must create a law as part of a governing body. As social media platforms such as Twitter, TikTok, Instagram and such are explicitly not part of the U.S. government, but are private entities, the claims that Trump's First Amendment rights have been violated are simply false. Having public figures such as Florida’s Congressman Matt Gaetz tweet “We cannot live in a world where Twitter’s terms of services are more important than the terms in our Constitution and Bill of Rights” only perpetuates false information, which could possibly incite more violence and chaos.
Clay Cavert, professor at the University of Florida and the leader of Brencher First Amendment project, supports the notion that Twitter’s ban of Donald Trump is perfectly legal. He states that “the constitution actually is irrelevant here in terms of public officials, including President Trump from Twitter.” As legal experts continue to tell us that the ban is legal and is not associated with the First Amendment, it is important to broaden the debate outside of legal parameters.
Whilst we can be certain the Twitter ban is legal, we must consider whether censorship of public platform users is healthy for our democracy. It is crucial to first address the ongoing rhetoric of Trump supporters who condemn the actions of Jack Dorsey as well as address the sociological impacts if such censorship were to continue. We must not focus on Trump's ban in isolation, but rather in context of his actions. Trump’s populist and violence-instigating rhetoric is not new; however, in his tweet on January 8th, he stated that his supporters “will not be disrespected, or treated unfairly in any way, shape, or form!!”, which had negative repercussions as many of his “supporters” committed acts of domestic terrorism as a result. However, this year is not the only time Trump’s language on Twitter has been viewed as controversial. We need to remember that Trump, in comparison to common members of the masses, had much more power as an elected official, thus his content was deemed “newsworthy.” If we look at his power as a politician, his tendencies to use provocative language, and his previous status on Twitter in conjunction, we have a dangerous recipe for the abuse of power — which he has clearly demonstrated time and time again. During the Black Lives Matter protest of 2020, Trump tweeted and quoted the Miami Police chief Walter Headley, who had been opposed to the demonstrations of the Civil Rights Movement in 1964, when he stated “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” It is clear that Trump had continuously used violent rhetoric that has resulted in physical manifestations. By allowing demagogues such as Trump to say anything they please is to encourage the notion that powerful figures can say whatever they please without suffering the consequences. In this case, to censor Trump is to protect democracy.