One story filling the slow news hole of Memorial Day weekend this year is the saga of hack-fraud (sorry, Chuck, it’s in the Banter Style Guide) Chuck C. Johnson’s suspension from Twitter, and subsequent elevation to First Amendment Martyr via Twitter hashtag. It all started Monday morning with this tweet about activist DeRay McKesson, and McKesson’s subsequent reaction:
So, I woke up to this. Hate is organized in America. & yes, I take this as a serious threat. pic.twitter.com/V0zThcJJs6
— deray (@deray) May 24, 2015
Chuck Johnson: Go to GotNews.co/donate if you want to give money to taking out @DeRay. DeRay McKesson: So, I woke up to this. Hate is organized in America. & yes, I take this as a serious threat.
The tweet apparently got Johnson suspended from Twitter (“for journalism,” as Johnson puts it), and quickly spawned the Twitter hashtag #JeSuisChuckJohnson, a playful variation on the #JeSuisCharlie slogan that became anthemic in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings that one idiot thought up, and which was quickly hijacked by Johnson’s detractors:
Breaking: dumb people think they have a 1st Amendment right to a Twitter account. #JeSuisChuckJohnson
— Allan Brauer (@allanbrauer) May 24, 2015
Apparently "Je Suis" is French for "You know who's a giant floor-shitting infant?" #JeSuisChuckJohnson
— Chris Holmes (@grayflannelsuit) May 25, 2015
You get the idea. There were also Johnson detractors who, nonetheless, denounced Twitter’s decision. Johnson told the website Recode that he hopes to be reinstated soon, because he was only speaking metamaphorically, a claim for which McKesson had a ready answer during this CNN interview:
“You know, for someone who considers themselves a journalist, I firmly believe that he understands the power of his words. and his words are his words. ‘Take out’ functions in a certain way, and if I got on any media outlet and said something to the effect of ‘take out the police,’ nobody would think that I was talking about an exposé, it would function to mean a physical threat. I believe that was what he meant.”
Whatever you think of Chuck Johnson, and whatever you think of the First Amendment, what McKesson said on CNN is exactly at the heart of the issue.
The policy under which Twitter apparently suspended Johnson has become more broadly-worded than in the past, and is intended to rein in threats of violence. Twitter can’t read minds, though, so they must take other factors into account.
I can’t read minds, either, but I don’t think DeRay McKesson actually thinks Chuck Johnson was fundraising for an assassination attempt, I think McKesson believes that Johnson deliberately chose language that was threatening. On that count, he’s probably right, it was probably some verbal dick-waving intended to make himself seem tough. Johnson claims his intent was pure metaphor because he can, and McKesson claims he felt seriously threatened because he can.
That leaves Twitter to settle what is, essentially, a dispute between two customers. Johnson’s intent, transparent though it may be, becomes irrelevant once McKesson says he feels threatened, and the question becomes was the language threatening? As McKesson’s example illustrates, it most certainly is, and so the dispute is resolved in McKesson’s favor.
It’s also resolved in Chuck Johnson’s favor, by garnering him lots of publicity, and an expansion of his like-minded audience, as well as his hate-reading audience. Really, Chuck Johnson couldn’t have planned it better himself.
As for Twitter, it is true that it’s a private company, and the First Amendment doesn’t offer protection in this instance, but pointing that out does miss an important part of this conversation. The platform, in its current form, functions more like a public utility like the phone company than it does as a purely private enterprise, and as such, concern over the principle of free speech is legitimate.
Those concerns, though, must now be litigated one dispute at a time, and in this case, Twitter acted appropriately. When they suspend someone for threatening to “eviscerate Chuck Johnson… with journalism,” that will be a different conversation.