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Leon Kaye headshot

The First Amendment is a Check on Government, Not a Cover for Trolls

By Leon Kaye

Anyone involved in the world of media is going to be trolled once in a while. We get our share here at TriplePundit. I’ve been subjected to plenty of trolling, the vast majority of which is from anonymous Twitter handles or emails. In general, getting trolled is like being nibbled by a goldfish; it is not really worth the bother. The uglier emails to me, however, sometimes score my version of a virtual hit-and-run, as I will respond with a Susie Green-like rant and then a click on the spam button to end the conversation. After all, I learned long ago that when faced with a bully, bully them back, and hit back hard.

But at times the level of trolling reaches a disturbing tone, as in over the past week when "Ghostbusters" star Leslie Jones became the target of relentless, racist and psychopathic taunts.

Apparently all Jones did was challenge society’s notion of how beauty should be defined, simply by existing and not being a size zero. Even worse, she took part in a remake of a 1980s hit movie that this time around showcases an all-female cast.

At first, Twitter remained silent while the trolling snowballed. On Monday, Jones finally had enough and deleted her account. As the outcry from her supporters and anyone who has been harassed on social media amplified, Twitter issued a tepid statement. And, in a move that many said took way too long, the company permanently banned Milo Yiannopoulos, tech editor of the conservative site Breitbart News.

It all started when Yiannopoulos wrote a derisive review of "Ghostbusters" on Monday, and asked readers to tweet Jones pictures of apes, which Jones says sparked an avalanche of racist and misogynist tweets. Plenty of users piled on Jones, and even hacked her account to send hateful and homophobic tweets in her name. The episode was an embarrassment for Twitter, which in recent years has seen its user growth plateau while failing to make a profit for its investors.

Yiannopoulos’ predictable reaction to the ban circulated widely throughout the media as he forecasted the eventual demise of Twitter during an interview with the New York Times:

“This is the beginning of the end for Twitter. Some people are going to find this perfectly acceptable . . . Anyone who believes in free speech or is a conservative certainly will not,” Milo Yiannopoulos of Breitbart News told the New York Times.

The problem with Yiannopoulos’ rant is that in much of our daily discourse, speech and expression are privileges, not something “free” that is an absolute right. The First Amendment prohibits the government (explicitly Congress) from placing any restrictions on the press. But private companies, including media companies – a description that arguably fits Twitter -- can control speech however what they want.

That is why a restaurant can have a dress code. It does so not to impinge on your freedom of expression, but because it needs to make money and risks losing business if its workers and customers have to look at you shirtless. A bar has the right to kick you out if you are saying something abusive to its patrons, whether you are racist, sexist or, at a minimum, just being a jerk.

Sure, at a fundamental level you can say what you want, wherever you want. But you then risk consequences, whether you are forbidden from entering an establishment, get fired from your job or, in the case of a public figure, lose your media platform.

Nevertheless, most folks who spew such invective do not have the social skills or guts to behave that way in public, so they retreat to tools such as Twitter. Other users who are public, such as Yiannopoulos, feel inspired by the size and passion of their followers, so they feel emboldened -- and entitled -- to tweet whatever they want.

And Twitter -- which let us remember is a business, not an entitlement program allowing us to share our views -- has the right to suspend users the company believes is spewing hate and vitriol.

Maybe it is true that the company was careful and calculated in the case of Yiannopoulos, because in the end Twitter realized it could lose far more users over the fallout than gain from the ongoing controversy. But again, it is Twitter’s privilege to decide how it wants to enforce its terms and conditions. Whether we frequent a local hangout or a virtual marketplace of ideas such as Twitter, the only right to which we are entitled is the opportunity to participate. If your mouth (or smartphone) shows you are not up to the task of being civil toward others, then your privileges, status and reputation are shot. And such an outcome is all on you, not society.

Image credit: Ljmorris21/WikiCommons

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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