Private Censorship is Good – Opting Out

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Freedom of speech is not a right in the same sense that the right to life is. In order to be enforced, it’s a positive obligation on behalf of others to behave differently, in this case, not censor. On the other hand, in order to respect the right to life, you must simply not kill or threaten to kill anyone. This is a negative obligation. The universal right to freedom of speech is the compulsion to platform people no matter what, even if you disagree with them and find their views distasteful.

It’s obvious that freedom of speech as a general principle is good for society and facilitates cultural evolution; but the only sense in which you can say it is a right is that the state cannot be permitted to censor, for such an act would be an imposition on someone’s person and property. When the government says, “this cannot be said,” it’s a restriction of what that person can do on their own property. When Twitter declares, “this cannot be said,” they are only prohibiting it on Twitter. This does not preclude that person saying the same things on their own platform. It’s an entirely different category to state censorship.

There are some that have argued that Twitter banning people is an act of aggression because it seriously diminishes their income and threatens their livelihoods. Allum Bokhari, whose Twitter handle is @LibertarianBlue, after his interview with Carl “Sargon of Akkad” Benjamin about the proposed Digital Bill of Rights, argued:

 “Increasingly, a person’s digital property is more valuable than their physical property.”

Calling someone’s Twitter account their “property” is misleading. If anything, they are borrowing the rightful property of Twitter. The company has graciously permitted the user to use their product under certain terms. In other words, their use of the platform is conditional, so cannot be considered their property.

Sometimes Twitter seems to ban people inconsistently and cite eccentric interpretations of the terms and conditions. This is annoying from a consumer point of view, but it is not violating anybody’s rights. They’d still be in the right if they just came straight out and said, “I’m banning this person because I don’t like their views,” or even nothing at all. I’m not morally obligated to provide a justification for why I’m kicking a stranger out of my house.

Nevertheless, to the point about a threat to the former user’s income and livelihood; Bokhari cites the example of the requirement of a court order for any landlord to evict a tenant. Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that, mutualists aside, it’s recognized that tenants do not own their apartments. And secondly, the court order requirement is a violation of the landlord’s property rights.

Landlords can have the problem that they are stuck with problematic tenants who can get away with the court order on a technicality. In such situations, the landlord tends to use other ways to get rid of the tenant, including incentivizing them to leave by slacking on maintenance.

Moreover, the “threat to livelihood” argument is irrelevant. There are many peaceful acts that represent a threat to somebody’s income that nearly everyone recognises as acceptable. Few people would deny the right to employees to leave a job they dislike, whenever they like, for whatever reason they like. With wafer thin margins, multiple employees doing this could represent a huge loss of income to the employer and threaten the business. Yet that is the employee’s right — no compulsion, even if the break in the contract results in the loss of income for the other party.

It may even be stipulated in the contract that the employee must leave two weeks’ notice, the employer is still not allowed to enslave people. The employee might forgo severance payment and other things, but that’s the employer’s right too.

In the arena of peaceful interactions — the private sector — most people would recognize that speech needs to be regulated in non-aggressive ways. Many parents place restrictions on speech for guests in their home — they don’t let them swear in front of their children or discuss lewd topics. Most would recognize the right of the parents to kick these guests out if they violated these terms. “Speech” in and of itself, without reference to private property, is censored all the time, and that’s a good thing.

The private property ethic allows society to negotiate which and how much speech is permissible. It solves the problem of shouting fire in a crowded theater — the theater owner simply puts up a sign saying “Don’t shout fire unless there really is a fire,” under threat of getting kicked to the curb. It’s these peaceful means that do the work where the state cannot and should not. If you prevent private companies from doing it, you leave room for the state to jump in, which is a threat to speech anywhere and everywhere.

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James Smith

Writer and film-maker from the United Kingdom. Digital nomad. Author of 'The Shy Guy's Guide to Travelling'.