What #FreeMilo Teaches Us on Freedom of Speech

Photo credit: Oasis Hurler (YouTube)

Milo Yiannopoulos, a controversial voice of libertarianism, has had his account banned following a lengthy assault on comedian Leslie Jones’ Twitter account. Some have seen this as an attack on free speech while others have applauded Twitter for taking a step to curb online harassment, something they aren’t known to do.

Ms. Jones,  one of the stars of the 2016 Ghostbusters film, has come under considerable fire in , receiving both sexist and racist comments in the wake of the film’s release. For days, Jones received Tweets attacking her gender expression, insulting her appearance, and even calling her an ape. This harassment came to a head as Yiannopoulos engaged in a series of Tweets criticizing the actress.

“I leave Twitter tonight with tears and a very sad heart.” Jones said on Twitter, “All this cause I did a movie. You can hate the movie but the s**t I got today…wrong.”

For those needing to be brought up to speed, Yiannopoulos, technology editor for conservative news site Breitbart.com, is a self-identified “cultural-libertarian” and rose to fame during the GamerGate controversy in 2015. A controversial figure, Yiannopoulos is famous for his aggressive, sometimes highly-criticized Twitter tirades against other celebrities and people of note.

Yiannopoulos’ Twitter account @Nero has previously received temporary bans for consistent violation of the terms of service. Recently however, Yiannopoulos’ account has been permanently banned following a public and aggressive engagement with Leslie Jones, one of the stars of the 2016 Ghostbusters film.

Following the ban, Twitter commented on the attack on Leslie Jones, without specifically mentioning Yiannopoulos’ involvement. “No one deserves to be subjected to targeted abuse online, and our rules prohibit inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others.” Twitter said. “We know many people believe we have not done enough to curb this type of behavior on Twitter. We agree.”

Yiannopoulos claims this move is taking things too far, and believes Twitter is showing its true colors. “This is the beginning of the end for Twitter.” Yiannopoulos’ said. “Some people are going to find this perfectly acceptable. Anyone who believes in free speech or is a conservative certainly will not.”

The film itself has come under heavy fire for starring women instead of men, a move which erupted into an online argument about and “forced” social justice. Some feel advocates of the film have placed audiences in a position where criticizing the film immediately labels them as sexist. Alternatively, some feel the film’s poor reception in social media spaces is largely due to people opposing an all-female cast. This has segwayed debate over the film into massive Internet-wide arguments over sexism and social justice.

There is an important lesson here: social media is not “yours.” You do not pay for the servers, you do not own the company, you do not have a “right” to say any kind of rhetoric the owning party finds distasteful. It can be an understandable lesson to forget when we engage in these digital spaces on devices we own, with internet we pay for, to forget we don’t own our social media accounts. Getting banned from Twitter is no different than being escorted out of a restaurant because the owner does not like the comments you are making to other customers.

This is easy for me to say of course, as I don’t personally agree with a lot of things Yiannopoulos has been known to say. However, social media sites are not a legal right, and getting banned for your comments is not an assault on free speech. You are free to say whatever you like, but as we have learned with Yiannopoulos, freedom of speech is not freedom of consequence. And much like the restaurant analogy above, if you feel your speech, hateful or not, is not welcome in an online space, you are free to go to a different site.

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