President Trump held a confab at the White House Thursday to promote his Orwellian notion of “free speech” online. It confirmed yet again the president’s implacable hostility to basic liberal freedoms.
Trump has repeatedly accused Facebook, Google, and Twitter of carrying out a secret agenda against him and his supporters, by hiding the president’s tweets and covertly banning his supporters. Trump presented his position as a defense of free speech against some secretive form of censorship, and warned, “I’m directing my administration to explore all regulatory and legislative solutions to protect free speech and the free speech rights of all Americans.”
The simplest and clearest notion of free speech, as most scholars and courts have understood the concept, is that it doesn’t matter if Trump’s charges are true. The government has no business interfering with the expression of ideas by individuals or companies. Some media platforms use partisan or ideological standards to screen their speech (Fox News), while others have relatively neutral standards (Facebook), and others have no content standards at all (public spaces where people hold political demonstrations). By this logic, social-media companies can screen out anybody they want, and if some political faction doesn’t like it, it can leave and form its own social-media channels.
On the other hand, one might argue that Twitter, Facebook, and Google have attained some monopolistic power that negates this argument. If there’s no realistic way to challenge their reach or to create viable competitors, then the “marketplace of ideas” might not apply. This would be a valid argument for rooting out whether social-media companies are engaged in some form of covert bias.
To be clear, Trump has produced no evidence whatsoever for this charge. I am merely describing a hypothetical argument that might support his position if his rather wild accusations were borne out.
But it turns out Trump cannot even defend this position, either. At the very same forum, he dismissed the free-speech rights of independent media. “To me free speech is not when you see something good and then you purposely write bad,” he insisted. “To me that’s very dangerous speech, and you become angry at it. But that’s not free speech.”
This is one of those statements that would be shocking if made by any normal president but is almost banal with Trump. He barely disguises his admiration for dictators and their freedom to murder journalists who displease them. While his own powers of suppression are far weaker, Trump is happy to use government authority to punish independent media (like CNN and the Washington Post, whose owners he has punished with unfavorable regulatory actions) and even individuals. (Trump has boasted that he personally enforced the NFL blacklist of Colin Kaepernick for the offense of kneeling during the national anthem.)
Trump’s invocation of “free speech” is consistent: His entire goal is to promote supportive views and suppress hostile ones. And the willingness of virtually the entire conservative movement to support or tolerate his cynical conscription of free speech to intimidate the media reveals how little it, too, cares about freedom.