As a legal matter, Twitter is allowed to disable the president’s account. A private company can make its own rules and is not subject to the First Amendment, which constrains only government. And Twitter has on occasion barred prominent users, such as Infowars’s Alex Jones, who was banished for spreading disinformation and inciting violence.
In practice, though, Twitter operates as part of what the former Supreme Court justice Anthony M. Kennedy once recognized as “a modern public square.” Twitter is both a primary source for information on current events and platform for individual expression. It has defined itself not as a publisher picking and choosing what may be said (though it arguably is that too), but as a venue open to all opinions and musings. Only by persisting with the most demonstrably harmful and low-value speech can you get kicked off.
Although some of Trump’s tweets meet the test of being noxious and even damaging, they do have public value. The president’s tweets tell us what he thinks and how he’s feeling; and they offer clues to what he may do next. That information is unquestionably important to citizens. For example, it helps opponents to think about how to protect those he may target and — we hope — to anticipate and thus better protect the country from his worst impulses. Perhaps most importantly, the tweets serve to expose the threat he poses to democracy and to the public.If the president began using Twitter to directly implore his backers to take up arms and wreak violence — a speech act that is considered unlawful incitement and outside the scope of First Amendment protection — that might be different; the public value of knowing the president had stooped so low would be outweighed by his stoking of lawless force. But for now, as Harris’s letter reflects, the president’s tweets stop short of that line.
Banning Trump would play into the president’s hands. Trump has staked his survival in office on convincing a major segment of the public that the Washington establishment, mainstream media and liberals are bent on thwarting the will of his supporters. By kicking the president off Twitter amid the political fight of his life, the platform would turbocharge the president’s conspiracy theories. In the past, when grandstanders like the right-wing firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos sought to speak on university campuses and were shut down, they used it to their advantage, playing the victim and rallying their backers to protest the outrage. The Trump administration is currently trying to both override the encryption on social media services and discredit many Internet platforms as biased against conservatives. Ousting Trump from Twitter could embolden such government efforts to encroach on the platforms and increase support for such measures among the president’s allies.
At a practical level, shutting down Trump’s Twitter account won’t stop him from spreading lies or stoking violence. He could speak or even write out the messages he wants conveyed and have them posted by his 2020 campaign account, or through the White House’s official Twitter feed. With Trump having said his piece, the messages themselves would be a fait accompli and inherently newsworthy, making it impossible to argue that various account-holders were not within their rights to post them. Besides, as president, Trump has nearly unfettered access to platforms with wider reach than Twitter, and at any time he can issue statements, go on TV or radio, or convene reporters to deliver his messages.
That Trump will likely keep tweeting must not mean we do nothing to blunt the harms of his missives. For starters, those who hold some sway over his supporters — including Republican elected officials and former officials — should join the chorus of umbrage over his abuse of the bully pulpit. As a way to avoid giving him a pass, Twitter could also apply to Trump a system of labels that it has publicly announced it will apply to politicians’ abusive tweets, provided it is committed and capable of applying them universally and impartially to political content of national concern.
But given the tangible downsides to shutting Trump out of Twitter, the rationale for such a ban would be less practical than punitive. Harris’s instinct that something — anything — must be done to stop a president who uses the power of his office to intimidate, menace and sow hatred is understandable. But as powerful a platform as Twitter is, it cannot stand in for the will of Congress and the American people to hold accountable a leader who abuses his power.