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A Response to the Pleas to Shut Up Trump

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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The holidays are right around the corner, so it’s the season to tell other people to shut up. That’s my takeaway from the various events of this week. Let’s look at three.

First, there were renewed cries for Donald Trump to be banned from Twitter.  An online petition has tens of thousand of signatures. The arguments vary, but they are from a common set. He makes things up. He’s vicious. He’s every “ist” and “ic” in the book. And here is the fun part: There is no free speech issue because Twitter, as a private company, has the right to suspend what accounts it likes.

To which I say: Wow.

They're right of course that Trump’s tweets are often offensive. They’re also right that the First Amendment has no application. Absent a specific legal prohibition, a private business may refuse to serve whomever it likes, including the president of the United States. Still, the present moment feels as if we have passed through the looking glass, into a world where everything is just the opposite of what it ought to be. How else to explain the sudden affection on the left for corporate power as a check on government?

Which brings us to the week’s second bit of shut-up news, this coming from the Trump camp. The president-elect as usual made himself the center of controversy, this time with a ridiculous proposal to punish those who burn the American flag. He was apparently responding to news accounts suggesting that flag burning (or tearing down, or stomping) has once more become a ritual of protest. As virtually the entire commentariat across the political spectrum has pointed out, such punishment, meted out officially, would be blatantly unconstitutional.

But what about punishment meted out unofficially? Let’s imagine a social media company that is so offended by flag-burning (or simply wants to protect the sensibilities of families who are) that it decides not to do business with those who choose that means of protest. By the let’s-ban-Trump-because-he’s-so-offensive logic, presumably the company could ban the protesters, too. Sauce for the goose and so forth.

Which leads us to the third bit of shut-up news from the week. A conservative watchdog group is posting online the names of professors whom it believes promote a radical agenda in the classroom. The left is furious, accusing the group of trying to shame them into silence. Such methods, critics argue, are reminiscent of the McCarthy era in their effort to enforce an orthodoxy upon the classroom.

Yes, indeed. Exactly right. Maintaining such lists is horrible. And I am delighted to welcome my liberal colleagues back into the company of those who think it wrong to use shaming and public pressure to get others to change their minds -- especially on campus, where the exchange of ideas should be a near-absolute value. I look forward eagerly to their earnest condemnations of publication of lists of climate change deniers. I anticipate with pleasure and relief their fury when professors whose positions are unpopular on the left are pressed to disclose e-mails and funding sources. Because all of that is McCarthyist too.

Heady days. The post-Trump left has now come out for more corporate power and an end to shaming on campus. Any day now, I expect fear of Trump to move my liberal friends to decide that Citizens United was not such a bad decision after all: perhaps they would like to use some corporate cash to fund efforts to defeat him in 2020.

  1. Okay, some of the cries are meant to be ironic.

  2. Yes, yes, it’s also true that if we encourage Twitter to ban all those who are vicious and mean, many a liberal commentator will also go down. And many a conservative commentator. And, for that matter, virtually the entirety of my political Twitter feed.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L. Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net