Nearly three years after his resignation in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon defended his actions in an interview with journalist David Frost. He argued: "When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal."
Nixon's take on executive authority has new relevance in Twitter's recent action — or lack thereof — in response to tweets by the current U.S. president that appear to violate the platform's rules. Twitter's terms of service are quite clear: "You may not make threats of violence or promote violence." President Trump's critics point to this policy in demanding he be suspended for a recent tweet threatening the North Korean regime with military action.
Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at U.N. If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won't be around much longer!— @realDonaldTrump
In this new context, more than 40 years after the Frost interview, Nixon might be right. Twitter's egalitarian ideals of treating all users equally reach their limits when a figure so central to the public interest makes the platform so central to his communication.
Certainly, were the typical user to make a threat of violence against another individual, it would violate not just the Twitter rules, but likely also the law. That user should be suspended and held to account. But the president is not a typical user. When articulated by the commander in chief, the statements are a direct expression of U.S. foreign policy. It would be wrong for Twitter to shield them from public awareness and scrutiny.
Were Twitter to block the president for his North Korea tweet, would they not also be obligated to take similar action against news organizations and journalists who accurately quoted his even more direct threat at the United Nations of total North Korean destruction? Calling upon a private company to destroy a public official's most controversial utterances creates a potentially disastrous precedent.
Transparency must be the guiding principle here. Twitter rightfully cites "newsworthiness" and the public interest in their rationale for keeping Trump's tweets live. The company similarly made an exception to its rules to make it easier for public transparency advocates to expose tweets deleted by elected officials.
Twitter's admission of such exceptions is an appropriate step in providing its own corporate transparency, though we still need more clarity as to the bounds of "newsworthiness." The most senior elected official in the nation certainly passes any test of civic relevance and interest, but these obligations of transparency should not extend to every headline-making celebrity with a Twitter account.
THREAD: Some of you have been asking why we haven't taken down the Tweet mentioned here: https://t.co/CecwG0qHmq 1/6— @Policy
The controversy over Trump's tweet comes during a broader debate over free speech, its limits, and the rights and responsibilities of private companies to restrict it. Make no mistake: Twitter has the absolute right to suspend any user for content it deems objectionable, just as the National Football League has the right to suspend players for expressing political views. Such is the privilege of the private sector.
The president's open hostility to a free press and informed citizenry makes the Twitter community's unfettered access to his thinking all the more critical. Suspension would not alter any of his positions, only hide them further from public criticism.
Twitter should no more suspend Trump than Sony should have been asked to destroy Nixon's implicating White House tapes. If a president acts improperly, his or her behaviour must be exposed, not shielded.