Who is “Harmful Opinions,” the man who makes statements so offensive he got banned from not one, but three social media platforms … And why do we care?

Predictably, the answer seems to depend upon whether one agrees with his strong and strongly expressed opinions. And they’re hard to miss, as he posted them first on Twitter and then on YouTube. Most recently, he’s taken to Twitch, a video platform and community for gamers. Supporters call him an “outspoken free-thought herald.” Meanwhile, those who don’t appreciate his views refer to him in much less complimentary terms.

In any case, Harmful Opinions is the nom de guerre of a UK man who waves the “alt-right” flag on numerous issues. These include feminism, censorship, and the “plight” of the white, male majority

Now, the Internet’s ablaze with chatter since the suspension of his Twitter and YouTube accounts. A quick search turns up pages and pages of discussion on Reddit, GamerGate and Encyclopedia Dramatica. Why were his accounts suspended? Were the suspensions a violation of the First Amendment? Let’s take a look.

HARMFUL OPINIONS BANNED ON TWITTER AND YOUTUBE.

On January 3, 2017, @HarmfulOpinions tweeted that Twitter suspended his account for 12 hours after he tweeted, “Kill all feminists.” Twitter demanded that he remove the tweet, after which point they reinstated his account. Then, on August 19, 2017, Twitter permanently suspended Harmful Opinions’ account. The suspension notice explained he’d violated their policies by “participating in targeted abuse.” On September 2, 2017, Google followed suit by shutting down his YouTube account.

This caused quite a bit of debate, as right-wing conspiracy theorists blamed angry left-wing “social justice warriors.” Others claimed big tech companies acted out of revenge for his feud with Candid. Some people, however, took issue with the fact that the app uses natural language based AI to flag inflammatory content. They claimed that by flagging and moving posts to other areas, they effectively censored them.  The uncensored, anonymous chat app shut down in June, 2017.

Others insist YouTube’s decision had little to do with controversial content, and everything to do with Harmful Opinions using his videos to drive viewers to his channel on Twitch—something that’s explicitly against YouTube rules.

 As of this writing, Harmful Opinions has active accounts on Facebook and Twitch, plus what appears to be a new one on Twitter.

BUT WHAT ABOUT FREE SPEECH AND HARMFUL OPINIONS’ FIRST AMENDMENT RIGHTS?

A lot of the debate centers on the ideas of free speech and censorship. But if a social media platform bans a user for certain kinds of speech, is it, legally speaking, a first amendment issue?

Lawyer and president of Newseum’s Constitutional Law Center Lata Nott clarifies:

“[The First Amendment] protects you from the government punishing or censoring or oppressing your speech. It doesn’t apply to private organizations. So if, say, Twitter decides to ban you, you’d be a bit out of luck.”

That is to say, the First Amendment applies only to government censorship. Censorship by a private company is not, legally speaking, a First Amendment issue. Nott does concede this sets an uncomfortable precedent for the idea of free speech as a whole.

Prohibitionist John B. Finch once gave a folksy analogy about the limits of personal freedom. This often-cited condensed version may be familiar to some of us.

This arm is my arm (and my wife’s), it is not yours. Up here I have a right to strike out with it as I please. I go over there with these gentlemen and swing my arm and exercise the natural right, which you have granted; I hit one man on the nose, another under the ear, and as I go down the stairs on my head, I cry out:

“Is not this a free country?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Have not I a right to swing my arm?”

“Yes, but your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.”

In short, “My freedom to swing my arm ends where your nose begins,” and your “rights” stop where they impinge on mine.

WHAT’S “FREE SPEECH?” IT ALL BOILS DOWN TO FISTS AND NOSES

Image via Vox

Many of today’s discussions on free speech, civility, and censorship, comes down to disagreements about fists and noses. Is there a bright line where one can say that an act of speech causes harm that’s as real as a punch in the nose? Does that harm have to be physical to count? What if someone’s careless—or deliberately inflammatory—”free speech” inspires someone else to commit a criminal act? Or to inflict harm on someone? Take falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, for example. If someone gets trampled by the fleeing crowd, is the shouter responsible, either morally or criminally? The revered jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes would say “yes.” But the court case that brought the quote into public discourse was overturned almost fifty years ago.)

These are questions every society must ask itself. Unfortunately, our society is still struggling to develop a vocabulary to discuss these questions—not to mention the answers—even as technology continues to change the nature of communication itself.

The case of HarmfulOpinions has caught people’s attention precisely because it addresses these questions … As directly as a fist to the nose.

Featured image: Composite with profile pictures from Harmful Opinions’ former social media accounts.

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