The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s and Hawley’s free-speech rights are perfectly intact. But the senator has half a point.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) speaks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) speaks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Two politicians are complaining that their free-speech rights are being squelched by the liberal cancel culture. Both are wrong, but one has half a point.

Behind Door No. 1 is — no surprise — President Trump, railing against Twitter for “banning free speech” after the company permanently exiled him from its platform on Friday.

Twitter is a private company, and it has no obligation to distribute Trump’s lies or provocations.

If anything, Twitter, like Facebook and YouTube, allowed his lies about a stolen election to circulate too widely and for too long. Only after those lies led to unspeakable, deadly, democracy-threatening violence did Twitter take definitive action.

Twitter on Jan. 8 banned President Trump from its site, a punishment for his role in inciting violence at the U.S. Capitol. (Video: The Washington Post)

I’m more sympathetic than some to the slow pace of the platforms’ progression over the past four years from laissez-faire to warning labels to, finally, banishment. Together, the social media giants control a lot of territory in the public square, and it’s no small matter to keep the elected president of a democratic country from using that territory to communicate with his constituents.

But the tech companies have no legal obligation to do so. On the contrary, they have a moral obligation — in the United States as in India and Myanmar and everywhere else — to prevent their forums from being used to incite violence.

And Twitter’s action in no way impedes Trump’s right to speak, as he quickly proved by issuing his statement of complaint, which was widely reported on, in The Post and elsewhere. The real threat to the First Amendment in recent years has emanated from Trump toward Twitter, not the other way around, when he initiated government action against the company for posting warnings that displeased him.

By the same token, publishing house Simon & Schuster did no damage to the First Amendment when it canceled its book contract with Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Hawley’s indignant complaint to the contrary notwithstanding.

The Constitution says Congress can pass no law that abridges free speech. It imposes no obligation on a private company, such as a publishing house, to promote speech that it, as a private company, doesn’t like.

So, while I have no idea whether Hawley has a contractual beef (“We’ll see you in court,” he vowed), Simon & Schuster did not violate his constitutional rights. (I reached out to his office to ask why he saw the cancellation as “a direct assault on the First Amendment,” but didn’t get a response.)

But was the cancellation the right call?

The question is personal for me. Like Simon & Schuster, The Post op-ed page is committed to publishing a wide array of views, which means we publish many columns with which I vehemently disagree. But like Simon & Schuster, The Post is a private company, and we’re free to publish or not publish and to set our own standards. We try hard not to publish columns that dehumanize any person or group of people, for example, or that contain falsehoods.

In principle, that may sound easy. Sometimes the lines aren’t so clear.

Simon & Schuster believes it has a “mission to amplify a variety of voices and viewpoints,” it said in its statement of cancellation. It obviously believed, until this past week, that there was merit in Hawley’s manuscript, “The Tyranny of Big Tech.” The book didn’t become unacceptable; the author did.

I wholeheartedly agree that Hawley’s amplification of Trump’s lies about a rigged election has been vile. And I’m sure he can find another publisher.

But I also think there’s danger in choosing not to publish a useful contribution to public debate on a vital subject, as Simon & Schuster must have believed the manuscript to be, because you now disapprove of the author. It can encourage only more decisions based on politics, not merit, as the National Coalition Against Censorship warned in a statement.

“Canceling the book weakens free expression,” the coalition said. “Canceling a book encourages those who seek to silence their critics, producing more pressure on publishers, which will lead to more cancellations.”

As I said, many of these decisions are difficult. But the coalition offers a useful reminder of where to place the benefit of the doubt: “The best defense for democracy is a strong commitment to free expression.”

Read more from Fred Hiatt’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this column: After the riot: Bureaucracy, ‘boys’ and books

The Post’s View: Social media is finally pulling the plug on Trump. We still must fight the lies.

Alyssa Rosenberg: Josh Hawley deserves consequences. Losing his book deal is a good start.

Graham Lampa: Why Donald Trump’s Twitter account should belong to all of us

David Von Drehle: How do liberty and human rights survive the age of the Internet?

Jennifer Rubin: Five questions after the failed, violent coup attempt

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