The Semi-Public Square

Commenting on the social media banning of Donald Trump, Adam Wagner describes Twitter as a “semi public square”

In reply, a few people assert that there is no such thing. Twitter is a private company with its own T&Cs that can be enforced as it sees fit. This allows them to dismiss the President’s suspensions as “not censorship” and “not about free speech.”

This might be true in a legal sense but it is certainly not in a moral or social sense, where the term ‘semi-public square’ is useful and instantly understandable.

Semi-public squares are places where there may be no formal right to expression, but where the particular historic, societal or cultural circumstances have created the expectation of that right. In the case of social media, that expectation is actually cultivated by the tech companies themselves.

Other examples of a semi-public square might include:

Professional sports grounds — private property, but places where political statements like ‘taking the knee’ might be made.

Student Unions — can be owned by the state or a private company depending on the institution… but certainly laces where political speech takes place, and where political ideas are developed.

It’s no coincidence that these are the places where free speech controversies flare up. The furores occur because the de jure owners/administrators of the space assert their legal right to control what it said (or expressed) there; while the users of the space are affronted that their expected freedoms are being curtailed.

The two examples above are useful comparisons, because the different kinds of expression that occur there put the opposing sides of the ‘culture war’ on differing sides of the argument.

Take The Knee

First, do you remember when the NFL banned players from ‘taking a knee’ to protest police brutality? In that situation, social conservatives, Republicans and those inclined to defend police departments from criticism all pointed out that the NFL clubs own the stadia. The teams can demand certain behaviours of their employees, the players. They can make and enforce their own ‘Terms and Conditions.’

Meanwhile, campaigners for racial justice said that the silent protests were a peaceful form of political expression, and any censure would be an attack on free speech.

No Platform

The conservatives and the progressives find themselves on opposite sides of the same argument when it comes to the myriad ‘no-platform’ controversies of recent years. In those cases, it is the social justice campaigners who take the ‘owners’ side of the argument, claiming a right to control who enters a private space. “Free speech doesn’t mean anyone owes you their platform” they say.

Meanwhile, the controversial speaker who has been barred from visiting claims ‘cancel culture’ and that free speech is under attack.

What all these scenarios have in common is that always, the person doing (or supporting) the suspension or suppression of speech will defend it through a legal framework. This allows them to say they “support free speech” while claiming the principles do not apply to them. Meanwhile, those complaining about the censorship do so on moral grounds.

Protecting formal free speech rights are really only a responsibility for states and their agencies. But I’d say that everyone else has a moral responsibility to promote the freedom of expression of those with whom we share society. I tend to call this ‘the wider spirit of free speech’ and I think our divisive politics has it in short supply. Observing this ‘spirit’ could mean being tolerant of speech you disagree with, and applying the legal standards for free speech to situations when there is no obligation to do so.

(Personally, I think that a genuine, full throttle commitment to free speech is not just about tolerating offensive speech — the Greek parrhesia. Full support for free speech also entails proactively giving a platform to silenced or under-represented voices, which the Greeks called isegoria.)

So when a free speech controversy flares up, one of the first questions we should ask ourselves is whether we are dealing with a semi-public square.

If we are, then of course the legal position — that this is a private space — should be delineated. But we should also acknowledge that this cannot be the end of the matter. We must also articulate what other expectations of freedom of expression we might have for the space, based on the role that semi-public squares play the community.

Semi-public squares deliver a public benefit. And those who operate such spaces spaces nearly always make money, and certainly accrue prestige, for so doing. For these reasons, they have a moral obligation to protect such expression… even if the law doesn’t reach that far.

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