One of the most basic principles endemic to conservatism is the idea that the government cannot legally suppress our freedom of speech. But there is a handful of conservatives out there who think our right to free speech also applies to “public” social media platforms which are owned by private corporations like Facebook and Google. This group of conservatives (which is hopefully a minority) is calling for government regulation on social media companies in an effort to forbid censorship of conservative views on those platforms. They are attempting to justify this agenda by claiming that these are “public” forums, and therefore everyone who participates has the right to expression that is free from censorship on the part of the owners of the platforms.
Newsflash: this position is a shining example of pure hypocrisy.
What is free speech? The First Amendment says Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. It is important to note that to regulate something is to abridge it. If this wasn’t true, regulating it would be an incoherent waste of time. Regulating content involves imposing limits on it on the basis of avoiding certain outcomes supposedly produced by the unabridged practice of free speech. The only speech that the government can prohibit is speech that places people in direct imminent danger, such as clear calls for violence against someone or falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded movie theater. But prohibiting that kind expression has nothing to do with abridging free speech. It’s illegal because it violates other laws against inflicting harm on others without justification.
But free speech is more than just the freedom to say what you want to say. It is also about the freedom to refrain from saying what you don’t want to say. So if the government forced a citizen to say “the president is to be worshipped above all other gods” against their will, that is as much a violation of freedom of speech as suppressing free expression would be. Why? Because the government would be enforcing a form of thought control, which is fundamentally what freedom of speech is really about. Freedom of speech is actually a slightly misleading phrase. The real nature of freedom of speech is freedom of thought. The only reason a government would ever suppress speech is t wants to suppress the ideas that speech expresses. If this was not true, freedom of speech (pronouncing mere words) would be a meaningless issue.
So to apply these principles evenly across the board, we must immediately acknowledge that if the government prohibited censorship of conservative views on social media platforms that are owned by people who disagree with those views, it would be forcing them to allow content they don’t want on their privately owned platforms against their will. Remember what we said above about freedom of speech just as much about the freedom to refrain from saying what you don’t want to say? If we think this through logically, we are forced to come to the conclusion that to do so would violate conservative principles. Conservatives cannot endorse the government violating the free speech rights of others just because we find them inconvenient. Selectively supporting rights for the sake of one’s own political agenda is something left-wing sophists do on a regular basis. It’s not what conservatives with integrity should be willing to do.
From a purely moral perspective, anyone can do whatever they please with their private property as long as they don’t inflict physical harm on their fellows or violate someone else’s rights. They can sell their products and services (or make them available) to whomever they wish, and they can refrain from the same—for any reason. So when Google suppresses conservative content on YouTube, are they violating the rights of conservatives? Aren’t they violating our right to free speech? The answer is no. Remember what free speech in this country is all about: Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. Google is not , and they are not passing any statutory legislation. They are a privately-owned company following their own arbitrary guidelines—which they have a perfect right to do. Since YouTube is their private property (despite the misleading phrase “public forum”), they can enforce whatever guidelines they wish. Their forum may be open to the public, but it is still privately owned. If we forget this distinction, we’ll be forever confused.
If we conservatives think we can use government force to make a private company post our views, then we must also endorse the government forcing Jack Phillips to bake a cake for a gay wedding. There is no difference.
When Google censors conservative content, they aren’t taking away a lick of our rights. We can speak in the public square until we’re blue in the face and neither Google nor the government can stop us. Google is not the public square, ladies and gentlemen. The sooner we get that through our heads, the better. The idea that lots of people in public society post content on YouTube does not make it a “public” forum in the sense that it is subject to Constitutional restraints. The Constitution is the law the government must obey. It’s not law U.S. citizens or private corporations must obey. Failure to recognize this distinction is to fail to comprehend what the Constitution and to fail to comprehend the difference between Constitutional law and statutory law. The government cannot violate our rights to free speech. But that’s where it ends. Private corporations can violate our free speech on their private platforms as much as they please. It would be great if companies like Google would follow the same free speech principles the government is supposed to follow. But that would be a matter of good will, not obligation.
Some conservatives have asked the question, “are you cool with business owners refusing to let black people sit at a lunch counter?” This kind of question can’t be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ True conservative principles on the part of people with integrity demand we endorse the use of private property at the discretion of the owner. If that’s not the case, the we don’t own our private property (products and services), the government does. That belongs in the categories of tyranny, despotism, totalitarianism, socialism, communism—take your pick. It doesn’t belong in a free country. So our answer to this question is appropriately more complex and wise: no, I’m not personally cool with refusing to serve black people in the sense of loving our neighbor, but I have to be cool with it from a legal perspective. If I’m not, I have to be cool with the government forcing Jack to bake a gay wedding cake.
There are some conservatives out there who can’t differentiate between things that are unloving, unethical, and unlawful. Refusing to serve a black person at a privately-owned diner just because they’re black can without question be cruel and unloving. But it’s possible for something to be unloving, but not unethical or unlawful. The government can’t force us to love our neighbor. As soon as it does, it has wandered into darkness and evil. It’s unloving for Google to silence conservatives. But it’s not unlawful, and it’s not unethical. If conservatives wanted to start a social media platform of our own, our cry of “foul” would be loud enough to break glass if the government forced us to post anti-conservative views on it. Now, since conservative principles involve fostering open discussion where all competing ideas are given a fair hearing, conservatives are generally more likely to post content they don’t agree with. But doing so under government force is another matter. We would insist that it must be voluntary on our part based on the fact that the platform is our private property. Why in the world would we want to be so hypocritical as to endorse the government taking away those rights from our liberal brothers and sisters? We rightly criticize liberals for saying “freedom for me but not for thee.” To their shame, some conservatives are saying exactly the same thing.