'US president Donald Trump's ejection from social media sites does not endanger free speech traditions' - Prof Paul Wragg, University of Leeds

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What does the removal of US president Donald Trump from a number of social media sites mean for free speech? Professor Paul Wragg, a media law expert from the University of Leeds, shares his views.

For a man whose entire presidency is epitomised by the expression “fake news” (a term of his own invention), it is unsurprising that its end would be shrouded in disinformation

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For the decision to eject him, unceremoniously, from his most beloved social media platforms has been greeted by many as unjustified invasion of his free speech rights.

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Professor Paul Wragg, a media law expert from the University of Leeds.Professor Paul Wragg, a media law expert from the University of Leeds.
Professor Paul Wragg, a media law expert from the University of Leeds.

Perhaps the most eye-raising response, so far, has been from heavyweight US civil rights lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who called it a “horrible precedent” and a blight on the First Amendment (the constitutional source of American free speech).

Is he right? Should we worry that if the President of the United States can be silenced then no one is safe? No. We should not.

Let’s ignore the irony of Trump proclaiming the sanctity of free speech when he himself has constantly denied the rights of his critics both through the pejorative label “fake news” and the exclusion of specific journalists from White House briefings.

Let’s also put aside what is otherwise a fatal flaw in any free speech claim here: social media companies owe no duty to respect the constitutional right to free speech for any of its users since freedom of speech is a political right enforceable only as against the Government.

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Instead, let’s take the claim seriously. Let’s pretend that social media companies do owe its users the right to free speech. Still, I maintain there is no cause for concern. Why am I so emphatic?

I’ll begin by recognising that the term “free speech” is not universal. It means something different in America to what it does here.

For example, when a teenager set alight a large white cross to send a message to the black family opposite, a court overturned his conviction because it “violated his right to free speech’”.

Why? Well, Americans believe that the state has no power to say what is good or bad, permissible or impermissible, political speech.

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For the US Supreme Court, therefore, the statute outlawing symbolic displays intended to incite racial and religious hatred violated this sacred principle. This, then, partly explains Dershowitz’s staunch defence of Trump.

UK law recognises only a weaker form of this principle. We agree that the state should not determine what is good or bad in political speech but we have no qualms about recognising this sort of behaviour for what it is - action rather than words.

Consequently, if I write “Let’s show the Government what we think of its Brexit deal”, the state has no right to interfere.

But if I stand before an angry mob carrying pitch forks and torches, assembled outside Parliament, in circumstances where I know that mob hangs on my every word, and say the same thing, there is a material difference. The state has every right to interfere. I am not merely expressing an opinion; I am delivering an instruction (whether I realise I am or not).

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It is for this reason that UK law distinguishes between speech and action.

We consider content only in respect of its consequences. The use of nuclear weapons is a political topic but there is no conceivable free speech right permitting state actors to reveal the launch codes to anyone interested in hearing them.

Let’s return to what Donald Trump did and ask whether removal of his privileges are an unjustified interference with free speech.

For us (and many Americans), the actions of Donald Trump were so deplorable because his words were not opinion: they were an instruction.

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Rightly, he has been impeached not because he dislikes the election result, but because he incited his loyal and devoted followers to commit acts of violence.

He was removed from social media platforms not because his views are polarising and objectionable but because they are dangerous. It is not simply that people do not like what he has to say. His words are hurting people.

He has convinced a percentage of the American people that his failure to be re-elected is the result of a conspiracy against him. Civil wars have started over less.

So, in that sense, the (reluctant and overdue) decision by certain platforms to deny Donald Trump its services is neither a concerning precedent or a serious threat to free speech. No one has the right to provide a clear and present danger to the safety and security of other people.

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What does this mean for the Yorkshire Evening Post’s Call It Out campaign? Is it endangering our proud free speech traditions by calling for hate to end online? Of course not!

Hate is not speech; hate is action. It has no place, let alone right to exist, in a mature democratic society.

Hate is backward. It has no future.

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