RUTH'S BLOG
The week that tested the boundaries of free speech

From Trump's Twitter ban to a congresswoman wearing a mask saying "censored" there has never been a time when a robust conversation about definitions of censorship has been more needed

15 Jan 2021
BY RUTH SMEETH

Irony – a situation in which something which was intended to have a particular result has the opposite or a very different one

Censored – suppressed, altered or deleted as objectionable

Words are important and while language is ever evolving some words have had the same meaning for decades, even centuries, and there are simply no excuses for misrepresenting them to try and fit your political worldview. Words have status, they have legal bearing and they are also a thing of beauty enabling us to communicate with each other.

This week we saw the ultimate unintentionally ironic political statement during the debate in the House of Representatives concerning Donald Trump’s second impeachment. Rep Marjorie Taylor Greene, a freshman Republican congresswoman from Georgia, stood up to defend the rhetoric of the president, speaking from the US Capitol, from the chamber of Congress, the home of US democracy, on live television and while being live streamed around the world, with a face mask which read “CENSORED”.

Perhaps it was a veiled reference to Trump’s removal from Twitter? But at that very moment, the congresswoman herself, with her words and her world view being heard by literally millions of people and recorded for posterity in both the media and the Congressional Record, was not being censored. Her voice wasn’t being limited, she wasn’t being forced to restrict her language or caveat her political position. She is fortunate to live in a country where free speech is still both protected and valued. And to suggest otherwise undermines the global fight for the right to free speech in repressive regimes.

Senator Josh Hawley has had his book contract cancelled by Simon & Schuster. They said “[a]fter witnessing the disturbing, deadly insurrection that took place on Wednesday in Washington, D.C. We did not come to this decision lightly. As a publisher it will always be our mission to amplify a variety of voices and viewpoints; at the same time we take seriously our larger public responsibility as citizens, and cannot support Senator Hawley after his role in what became a dangerous threat to our democracy and freedom.”

Hawley is claiming that he is being cancelled, that his constitutional right to free speech is being attacked and that he is suing. We know that because Hawley was featured in nearly every news outlet which covers the USA, both foreign and domestic. Hawley remains a senator, he has the right to speak to his nation in every sitting outlining his priorities and world view. His words were published this week in an op-ed in his local media. He hasn’t been silenced or cancelled, his lucrative book deal has. And even if that sets a bad precedent – a debate we will explore further at Index over the coming months – it is not the same thing.

Our right to free speech is precious. It is something that we need to cherish. Not abuse. And we need to be honest about when it is and is not being threatened. It is being threatened in Belarus, where our own correspondent Andrei Aliaksandrau has just been arrested by the regime. It is under threat in Egypt where according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights 60,000 political prisoners are incarcerated. It is nonexistent in Xinjiang province, China, where millions of Uighurs have been sent to re-education camps. It is not being threatened in the USA – it may be being challenged but these words mean different things.

I believe passionately about our right to free speech. I think everybody has the right to speak, to argue their position, to tell their stories. But there is a difference from having the right to speak and the right to be heard. Simply put you don’t have the latter, it is not a universal right, which can be unjust and for some incredibly damaging but it’s the reality we live in.

This brings me to the other controversy of the week, which warrants a great deal of debate and conversation. Something Index is going to launch in the coming weeks – the suspension of Trump from his social media accounts. Most online platforms are corporate entities, who balance responsibilities to defend free speech and to protect their users. They have a duty of care to their customers as well as to their corporate reputations. They also facilitate a great deal of our national and personal conversations. And they have made the remarkable decision to remove the President of the United States from their sites. They had the right to do this, but the question is should they have removed him and more importantly who decided he shouldn’t be there?

It was not a decision that was taken lightly. “I do not celebrate or feel pride in our having to ban @realDonaldTrump from Twitter, or how we got here. After a clear warning we’d take this action, we made a decision with the best information we had based on threats to physical safety both on and off Twitter. Was this correct?” wrote CEO of Twitter Jack Dorsey.

In his thoughtful thread on the action he wrote: “Having to take these actions fragment the public conversation. They divide us. They limit the potential for clarification, redemption, and learning. And sets a precedent I feel is dangerous: the power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation.”

As Dorsey himself acknowledges we need to explore what role these companies really play in our society. Are they merely platforms enabling us to engage within a framework they determine? Are they publishers responsible for every word on their sites? Do they govern the public space or merely facilitate it? And do we know what they are doing? Their actions can determine who speaks and who is heard. We need a really robust conversation about where the red lines should be on online content and what is or isn’t acceptable. These questions have been circulating for a while but have never felt more crucial to be addressed than this week. These are the questions that will define our online presence in the years ahead, so we need answers now.

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