On Sunday, Johnson was permanently suspended from the site after asking for funds to “take out” the civil rights activist DeRay McKesson, who’s been active in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo. Twitter has also suspended a series of Johnson’s new accounts, including @citizentrolling and @freechucknow, prompting Johnson and his lawyers to threaten legal action and accuse the site of “censorship.”
“Twitter doesn’t seem to have a problem with people using their service to coordinate riots,” Johnson complained on his blog, GotNews.com, which has since been downed by an apparent DDoS attack. “But they do have a problem with the kind of journalism I do.”
In other words, Johnson’s saying, Twitter is differentiating between types of acceptable speech; they’re redrawing the boundaries of things you can say in public and things you can’t say in public, in a way that Johnson and others — including Twitter! — aren’t necessarily used to.
See, there’s a popular misconception that moderation on social networks and other Web sites is governed by the First Amendment. (For more on this mistaken point of view, plz see the comments section of virtually any Washington Post story.) That is not, however, technically correct. The First Amendment defines the relationship between you, as a citizen, and the government. It does not define your relationship between, say, you and a private corporation, or you and the university you attend, or you and your neighborhood association.
That means this notion we have about radical free speech — this distinctly American framework, that anyone can say anything, more or less, short of screaming “fire” in a theater or making a “true threat” — does not have to apply to online spaces. Instead, companies like Twitter can make new standards, new frameworks, according to their corporate values and the needs of their users. (Twitter, a longtime holdout here, has recently escalated its attempts to make sure that “differences of opinion do not cross the line into harassment.”)
This does not, alas, mean we’ve seen the last of Chuck Johnson, uber-troll extraordinaire. Banned by Twitter, he can simply take up residence elsewhere — say Facebook, where he purportedly maintains a personal account, or Reddit, where he’s promised an upcoming AMA.
But even Reddit, the mainstream Internet’s long-time champion of absolute free speech, modified its rules to clearly ban harassment on May 14. There’s a growing understanding, it seems, that the standards we use for speech off the Internet are not quite the same as the ones that work on it.
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