Twitter and the Right to be Heard

Freedom of Speech, Not Reach

Social media, and twitter in particular, has recently become popular in the conversation about freedom of speech. This surrounds the issue of Twitter punishing people for posting right-wing and conservative ideas more than people on the left. Alex Jones being banned and Kathy Griffin not being banned are two exemplary cases.

The fear here is that Twitter is policing people for wrongthink. Only left-wing and liberal ideas are allowed, and with Twitter being a primary hub for communication, this threatens to silence right-wing and conservative views from the public conversation. This would give left-wing and liberal ideas de facto hegemony in western culture. This has prompted people to call for Twitter usage to be treated like a utility or even a human right, in the sense that humans have a right to free speech.

I think this is a misguided way of thinking about Twitter. Being banned from Twitter does not infringe on a person’s right to free speech. It only infringes on their ability to have that speech heard by a larger audience. This brings up the questions: do humans have a fundamental right to be heard? Is being heard a part of our right to free speech?

I think freedom of speech can be viewed from a few different angles: the right to say what one wants; the right to be heard saying what one wants; the right to hear what someone else says; and the right to not have to hear what someone else says.

1. The Right Not to Have to Hear What Someone Else Says.

I’m going to examine this aspect first. This seems to be a right that people on the politically correct left affirm. That’s what leads to so-called ‘cancel culture’ and attempts to de-platform people. If people have a right to not have to hear what other people say, this seems fundamentally opposed to the idea of free speech. It’s where things like blasphemy and hate speech laws stem from.

In the United States, freedom of speech has often been interpreted as meaning that if person A hears person B say things that person A finds disagreeable or offensive, person A simply has to tolerate it as a condition of maintaining freedom of speech for everyone. The same right applies to person A – if person A responds to person B with something person B finds objectionable, person B then also must tolerate this.

But does one have the right to not have to hear things one finds disagreeable or offensive? Does this ‘right’ take precedence over someone else’s right to state their beliefs? This right cannot be universal, since different people have difference ideas about what is allowable to hear. This makes enforcement arbitrary, since it will change depending on the situation.

2. The Right to Say What One Wants.

This is the most popularly understood way to view the right to freedom of speech. It hearkens to the freedom of thought – one can think privately to themselves whatever they wish. Being able to publicly state those beliefs means the ability to be true to oneself – I do not have to profess beliefs I do not agree with.

This also seems to be where people get hung up on the idea of free speech on Twitter. If Twitter bans only people with right-wing and conservative points of view but not people with left-wing and liberal points of view, the argument goes, then Twitter is essentially saying that one must toe the line if they wish to speak. This ends up being almost a form of mind control, since a person stating their position is punished for thinking the ‘wrong’ things.

This argument assumes that Twitter is a public forum wherein everyone is accorded a fundamental right to speak there without fear of retribution. However, Twitter is not the government, but a corporation, which can make any rules it wants. If Twitter is a fundamental right, then Twitter going out of business would be an infringement of our basic human rights. This would require Twitter be propped up by the government, even if it fails to be profitable, since it is a human right to use it. It also begs the question: did all of the people who lived before Twitter have their freedom of speech infringed upon?

The fact is, though, that being banned from Twitter does not restrict someone from speaking – they can continue holding their beliefs and stating them publicly. Being banned from Twitter only prevents a person from being heard.

3. The Right to be Heard; The Right to Hear What Someone Else Says.

These rights – if they are, in fact, rights – is where I think the Twitter argument must be held. Someone being banned from Twitter doesn’t stop them from speaking, only from being heard. If we are to say that using Twitter is a human right, we are not saying that one must have access to Twitter in order to speak freely. What we’re saying is that one has a right for their speech to be heard by others. Or, in the case of the speaker’s audience, that we have a right to hear what other people say.

These rights might be understood in the sense that there cannot be any restriction on what a person is allowed to hear. This right is fundamentally for the listener, though, and not the speaker. It is also a ‘negative’ right as opposed to a ‘positive’ right. By that I mean that a person does not have a right to hear what they want, but instead a right from restriction to hear what they want. For instance, I do not have the right to listen in on your phone calls just because I want to hear what you’re saying, but if you are talking to your friend in my presence, there can be no laws saying that I should be restricted from hearing what you are saying to each other.

This is a subtle, yet important distinction. Because if one does have the right to be heard, for instance on Twitter, then why does one not also have the right to be heard on television and radio? Or the right to have everyone’s phone number so that one can make their beliefs known to people that way? Especially if humans do not have the right to not have to hear other people say (see 1 above). And if one has the right to hear what someone else says, in the ‘positive’ sense, then personal privacy is an infringement of that right.

Concluding Remarks

What I want to make clear here is that the free speech arguments around Twitter are focusing on the wrong thing. Being banned on Twitter does not infringe on a person’s right to think and say what they want. It only stops other people from hearing it. And so, what must be decided is whether or not when we state our freely spoken beliefs and views, we have a right to have those beliefs and views heard by an audience; or, on the other side, whether we have a right to hear someone state their beliefs and views. I contend that making these things rights in the ‘positive’ sense leads to absurdities, especially if we conclude that a person does not have a right to not hear what someone else says.

Ultimately, however, I agree that banning people of one political persuasion from Twitter and not another is ill advised. While it may be allowable, based on my interpretation of the human right to free speech, it is still harmful. Being able to have a dialogue about people’s differing views on ideas is one of the great benefits of free speech, even if that emergent property of free speech is not enshrined in its existence as a natural right. Having a conversation is better than not having a conversation.