Conservative activist and commentator Milo Yiannopoulous asked White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest a question about free speech Friday and Earnest promptly turned it into an opportunity to lecture Republicans on who should be the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s replacement.
During Friday’s White House press conference, Yiannopoulous asked Earnest if there was anything the White House could do to encourage Facebook and Twitter to honor free speech.
Yiannopoulous began, “I have a free speech question. The late Aaron Swartz, cofounder of Reddit, said that censorship had a meaning outside of government when private corporations either invent new kinds of speech or have a monopoly on certain places online. It’s becoming very clear that Twitter and Facebook in particular are censoring and punishing conservative and libertarian points of view. The president has made some encouraging comments about free speech. He said for example that university students shouldn’t be coddled, perhaps suggesting that the safe space and trigger warning culture isn’t something he believes in. Is there anything the president can do to encourages Silicon Valley to remind them of the importance, the critical importance of open, free speech in our society?”
Earnest replied, “Well I appreciate the question, you know obviously part of what’s build into our system is a respect for private companies to put in place their own policies but I think the president would be the first one to observe that the success of that kind of social media and some of the social media tools is actually predicated on the idea of freedom of expression.”
These tools are “so groundbreaking because they give people an opportunity to express themselves in ways that we didn’t previously even imagine. It also gives the average person the opportunity to be heard by the world,” Earnest said. “That’s what makes that kind of technology and those kind of tools so remarkable and frankly, I think that’s part of what makes them so successful. But yes, as you pointed out, that is predicated on the important protection of First Amendment rights to self-expression.”
Yiannopoulous followed up, “You obviously can’t enforce the First Amendment on private corporations but there seems to be a very clear trend. My verification check was taken away from me for making jokes about the wrong groups of people. Conservative commentators and journalists are being punished and suspended, having their tweets deleted by Twitter. Facebook is you know, removing criticism of immigration of Europe. Are there any mechanisms that the government can use to remind those companies that they have that responsibility? Or do we just have to trust that the market’s going to punish them if they don’t?”
Earnest replied, “I’m not sure exactly government policy decision could have any influence on that. Obviously, there is a third branch of government which is our courts. They’re insulated from politics. They’re supposed to be in a position to resolve those kinds of questions so if there are private citizens who feel their constitutional rights are being violated in some way, that they do have an opportunity to address that before a judge in a court of law.”
“And that should be the way our system works. But again even that is predicated on the idea that our court system is appropriately insulted from partisan politics,” Earnest said.