Provided they do not discriminate against whole groups, and instead make decisions on a case by case basis, social media platforms are not violating human rights or free speech.

First published in January 2021.

As others have said, and perhaps I have been a little flippant about, there are knock on issues for free speech and human rights in relation to Donald Trump’s social media ban. I suspect it is something which is slightly more nuanced than Twitter allows for.

Donald Trump’s suspended account. | Twitter

Free speech is not an all encompassing waiver which allows for an individual to spread hate speech, incite violence, etc. Private companies are also not bound by a legal requirement to host any particular individual.

I fully support the banning of Trump, and personally think it is a number of years too late. As some have questioned though, could the denial of an account to the President of the United States set a larger precedent? Depending on your views you could argue that yes, it could ensure that everyone is obligated to abide by a platform’s terms and conditions, no matter who they are. Or you could argue that it means that anyone could be banned for voicing their opinions.

Both can be true at once.

Human rights, which is what a number of people are claiming Trump’s ban violates, are actually far more limited than many think. Free speech is one, but the means by which that free speech is broadcast is not necessarily. If a state blocks access to platforms then that can be classed as a violation of someone’s human rights, through a fundamental point of silencing dissenting voices. It is easy to think that this only applies to dictatorial regimes, but we see it even in democracies.

As an example, and one which someone in my comments rightly and fairly pointed out, in the UK we know of times when asylum seekers are denied access to the ability to share their voices. That is a breach of rights. A state blocking access to internet providers to silence dissent likewise could be judged to be a violation.

Social media platforms. | Pixabay

The flip side of this is that it could also be argued as a necessary step to genuinely protecting the safety of the populace. As an extreme, and overly simplified, example, would it have been a violation of free speech and human rights had Hutus been prevented from calling Tutsis “cockroaches” in Rwanda. No, because it could have prevented the deaths of others.

There is no easy answer to when and where an individual’s voice should be limited in most cases. There are some areas where it is obvious though. This is why the conflation of “freedom of speech” and “human rights” will always be a contentious one.

Those who spread hate speech will argue that it is their fundamental right to voice their views. They hide behind freedom of speech as a defence, yet it is a defence which does not exist, not even under the first ammendment in the US.

So, back to the point. Is a private company banning the President of the United States a violation of free speech and human rights? I would argue not.

Donald Trump. | The White House

Trump wasn’t banned because of a protected characteristic. He wasn’t banned for voicing political opinions. He hasn’t been “silenced” and, particularly in the case of Trump, has other outlets for his voice. He was banned by a private company for violating, repeatedly, their terms and conditions.

Free speech is not freedom from consequences. Where we need to look at are all the places where those consequences genuinely deny people a right to voice legitimate, non-hate spreading, views. That’s not the case here.

I would add, however, that I don’t think that the debate about freedom of speech has moved in line which changes in how voices are broadcast. We see debates regarding the role of social media sites as content producers or hosts, because we still think in old terms. Never has information been so easily and widely disseminated.

We take that for granted.

You see pundits of all political persuasionals argue that they are being “silenced” because one forum or another refuses to broadcast them. Is that silencing “free speech” though?

I would argue that a core test needs to be: Could you be imprisoned or penalised for voicing a view which did not advocate or incite harm against others if you said it in a public space? But, again, maybe I am oversimplifying here.

As it stands though, private companies are not obligated to broadcast any particular view. Provided they do not discriminate against whole groups, and instead make decisions on a case by case basis, they are not violating human rights or free speech.🔷

Dan Sohege, Human rights advocate, international refugee law specialist, immigration economist, charity fundraising professional and Director of Stand For All.

[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 14 January 2021 with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected, and published with the author’s consent. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]

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