The Battle for Free Speech: Meghan Murphy vs. Twitter

Last week, Canadian feminist and journalist, Meghan Murphy, announced that she is suing Twitter. Having been permanently suspended from Twitter last Fall, Murphy’s lawsuit challenges Jack Dorsey’s contention made last September to the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Twitter Transparency and Accountability wherein he stated, “We don’t consider political viewpoints, perspectives, or party affiliation in any of our policies or enforcement decisions, period.” Taking aim at Twitter’s contradictory and unevenly-applied policy, Murphy’s lawsuit is legally challenging Twitter by accusing  this big tech company of censoring content made by users based on conflicting political perspectives (eg. conflicting with those of Dorsey or others at Twitter). Meghan confirms that Dorsey has acted against his own company’s mandate which was “to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers. Our business and revenue will always follow that mission in ways that improve and do not detract from a free and global conversation.”

In a video explanation, Murphy details the reasons for her lawsuit, outlining the many contradictions within Twitter’s exercise of its policies and its censorship of its users, most notably feminists and anyone who is gender critical. Murphy’s “crime”? She tweeted this: “Men are not women” and “How are transwomen not men? What is the difference between a man and a transwoman?” Reminiscent of the tenor preceding the Scopes Monkey Trial, this lawsuit is bound to mark the stark terrain between free speech and censorship while also legally cementing the fundamental right to discuss critically the pitfalls of politically acceptable speech when multi-billion tech firms are today sponsoring the main arenas of free speech: social media.

It’s not only conservative pundits who are perplexed by this double-standard of who gets to have a Twitter account (eg. Donald Trump and Louis Farrakhan), but also centrist publications are covering this event. But why are many left-wing news sources ignoring both Murphy’s banning from Twitter in addition to the more problematic elision of women’s rights around which this issue turns? And how will such a lawsuit affect the levels of responsibility that everyone from website/domain hosting companies to social media elites must maintain in order to keep in check with national laws that protect freedom of expression?

This lawsuit is bound to be a game-changer for everyone as it will challenge many basic “givens” about social media and the power of tech giants like Twitter. Without a doubt, Facebook, Instagram and Google, among others in this field, are playing close attention to this lawsuit, since what results from this lawsuit will potentially set out case law for a good many years.

For starters, tech giants are today controlling public opinion through censorship and how they excise certain individuals from public participation on what Twitter itself admits is not a private—but a public—platform. Dorsey is on record numerous times stating just this. When interviewed by Sam Harris about Meghan Murphy two weeks ago, Dorsey is asked about why Murphy was banned when Twitter has kept accounts by numerous people and groups that have posted inflammatory content. Dorsey’s answer contradicts what he told the U.S. government last fall: “I don’t believe that we can afford to take a neutral stance any more…I don’t believe that we should optimize for impartiality.” Harris then asks Dorsey, “Why not take refuge in the First Amendment?” as a comprehensive response. Dorsey’s response: “The enforcement of [our rules] is not always apparent….If you just look at one enforcement action, we don’t suspend people purely for saying one particular thing permanently.” While Dorsey exempts violent threats from this rule, it is clear that Dorsey is playing language games in how he has shifted Twitter’s role as arbiter of free speech: “I don’t think we can be this neutral passive platform any more.”  Effectively, Dorsey is advocating for censorship. Hence, the disconnect between what he said to Senate last year and where Twitter asserts itself as a public arena for the democratic sharing of ideas and against what Dorsey calls the “shutting down” of those who “weaponise” Twitter. He goes on to claim that Twitter’s role is more about what the platform “amplifies” and and what conversations it “gives attention to”—all this to couch removal of those who produce content that Twitter does not agree with.

Harris warns the listener before the interview that Dorsey is skilled at stepping around difficult questions, but as you listen to the interaction, it is painfully clear that Dorsey promotes censorship by stating that Twitter’s focus is on promoting certain ideas, not people. Still Dorsey is cognizant that people produce ideas, not the inverse. So in this interview he is slippery, plays with terminology and essentially justifies the removal of what he deem disagreeable viewpoints through the removal of the creators of such viewpoints. Renaming censorship as focusing on “what are we amplifying”, Dorsey has come up with a slick media spin for a metaphorical “re-education camp” for banned Twitter users.

As is the case for Murphy, social media is used for building a brand and career, marketing, research and company promotion. Murphy’s suit argues that being banned from Twitter negatively impacts her work as a journalist pointing to how news publications cite Twitter from The New York Times and beyond. Additionally, where the public geographic spaces of old are being deferred to social media, this brings up new challenges for what Dorsey has repeatedly called Twitter—a “public square.” In fact, in his Senate testimony last year, Dorsey used this term five times to refer to Twitter. So one must wonder why the public square is being privately controlled, or at the very least, why private companies hosting the public forum are exempt from upholding the laws which guarantee free expression.

Like Twitter, fellow tech giants are dangerously approximating the role of censors of free speech in their respective empires which they had claimed, years earlier, to have created to expand free speech. Dorsey clearly expresses a desire for “healthy conversation” but fails to uphold the promised platform for freedom of expression one year later.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com. Read other articles by Julian.