By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Don't keep Trump off Twitter

trump and twitter (kovop58/Shutterstock.com)

I oppose Twitter's decision to block President Donald Trump.

This is not literally a First Amendment issue, of course. The First Amendment involves acts by the government, and Twitter is a private company to which no one has a constitutional right to access. However, I am a very strong believer in the value of free speech separate from the literal language of the First Amendment.

Why is freedom of speech so very important? Three reasons are often given. The first is the old argument by John Stuart Mill that the jostling of a free marketplace of ideas is the best way to bring forth the truth. A corollary of that argument is that freedom of speech is necessary to provide information for democracy to function. The third is that freedom of speech is a crucial way to show respect for people.

I wish I could have more faith in the first argument than I do. We know of too many situations where passions, prejudices and ignorance have led to the truth’s defeat in the battle of ideas. The second argument, which makes sense to me, is that people can’t be expected to make intelligent decisions about what and whom to vote for without being able to hear arguments from different sides.

Editor's Note

FCW's editors are also advocates of free speech. It is why we published this piece; Steve Kelman is an important voice in the federal IT community. However, we disagree with his conclusion regarding access for the president to his now-banned personal Twitter account.


However, I will confess to being most-enamored of the third argument. This one is not so much empirical as philosophical, and thus is less dependent on the contention that free speech will bring out the truth. Granting a right to free speech shows recognition of each person’s status as a human being capable and worthy of choice and self-determination. Those are precious characteristics unique to humans. In valuing free speech, we are honoring a central feature of our humanity.

Are there legitimate limits to free speech, speech that is unacceptable? I remember lively discussions from when I was younger about whether communists had a right to free speech. The question was, can one use free speech to advocate the end of free speech? My view then was yes, because the value of free speech was so great. I still believe that.

The classic example of legitimate limitations to free speech comes from the old standard enunciated by Justice Louis Brandeis of “clear and present danger” – one may not cry fire in a crowded theater. An action that urges people to commit violence falls under that heading. Those who support blocking Trump’s Twitter account seem to be saying that his tweets create a clear and present danger of violence.

As I understand Trump's recent tweets, they did not literally urge people to commit violence, though they can be interpreted as endorsing or “inciting” it. Given the importance of the value of free speech, my own view is that only a literal endorsement of violence would justify blocking him. 

It is hard to argue, I think, that Trump’s tweets are not part of our political debate. That puts them under the argument for free speech based on providing information for democracy to function, despite those who believe the tweets are providing no useful information.

If there are individual tweets that urge violence, by all means take those down. But there is no plausible claim that most or even very many of his tweets fall into that category, or even a weaker one of inciting violence -- and thus in my view no compelling case to take Trump off of Twitter entirely.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jan 12, 2021 at 7:44 AM


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