“Free Speech for Whom?”: Former Twitter Executive Makes Chilling Admission on the “Nuanced” Standard Used For Censorship

Yesterday’s hearing of the House Oversight Committee featured three former Twitter executives who are at the center of the growing censorship scandal involving the company: Twitter’s former chief legal officer Vijaya Gadde, former deputy general counsel James Baker and former head of trust and safety Yoel Roth. However, it was the testimony of the only witness called by the Democrats that proved the most enlightening and chilling. Former Twitter executive Anika Collier Navaroli testified on what she repeatedly called the “nuanced” standard used by her and her staff on censorship. Toward the end of the hearing, she was asked about that standard by Rep. Melanie Ann Stansbury (D., NM). Her answer captured precisely why Twitter’s censorship system proved a nightmare for free expression. Stansbury’s agreement with her take on censorship only magnified the concerns over the protection of free speech on social media.

Even before Stansbury’s question, the hearing had troubling moments. Ranking Member Rep. Jamie Raskin (D., Md) opened up the hearing insisting that Twitter has not censored enough material and suggesting that it was still fueling violence by allowing disinformation to be posted on the platform.

Navaroli then testified how she felt that there should have been much more censorship and how she fought with the company to remove more material that she and her staff considered “dog whistles” and “coded” messaging.

Rep. Stansbury asked what Twitter has done and is doing to combat hate speech on its platform. Navaroli correctly declined to address current policies since she has not been at the company for some time. However, she then said that they balanced free speech against safety and explained that they sought a different approach:

“Instead of asking just free speech versus safety to say free speech for whom and public safety for whom. So whose free expression are we protecting at the expense of whose safety and whose safety are we willing to allow to go the winds so that people can speak freely.”

Rep. Stansbury responded by saying  “Exactly.”

The statement was reminiscent to the statement of the former CEO Parag Agrawal. After taking over as CEO, Agrawal pledged to regulate content as “reflective of things that we believe lead to a healthier public conversation.” Agrawal said the company would “focus less on thinking about free speech” because “speech is easy on the internet. Most people can speak. Where our role is particularly emphasized is who can be heard.”

Navaroli was saying that it is not enough to simply balance free speech against public safety (a standard that most free speech advocates would oppose as ill-defined and fluid). Instead, Navaroli and her staff would decide “free speech for whom and public safety for whom.”

The suggestion is that free speech protections would differ with the speakers or who was deemed at risk from the exercise of free speech. It takes a subjective balancing test and makes it even more ambiguous and illusory. Free speech demands bright lines to avoid the chilling effect of uncertainty for citizens. The Twitter standard described by Navaroli defies definition, let alone understanding, for anyone posting controversial or dissenting views.

In the hearing, the Democratic members and witnesses repeatedly returned to the statement of Holmes on “shouting fire in a crowded theater.” The hearing shows how this statement has been grossly misused as a justification for censorship. From statements on the pandemic to climate change, anti-free speech advocates are claiming that opponents are screaming “fire” and causing panic.

The line comes from Schenck v. United States, a case that discarded the free speech rights of citizens opposing the draft. Charles Schenck and Elizabeth Baer were leading socialists in Philadelphia who opposed the draft in World War I. Fliers were distributed that encouraged men to “assert your rights” and stand up for their right to refuse such conscription as a form of involuntary servitude. Writing for the Court, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes dismissed the free speech interests in protecting the war and the draft.

He then wrote the most regrettable and misunderstood judicial soundbites in history:  “the character of every act depends on the circumstances in which it is done . . . The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.” “Shouting fire in a crowded theater” quickly became a mantra for every effort to curtail free speech.

Holmes sought to narrow his clear and present danger test in his dissent in Abrams v. United States. He warned that “we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loath and believe to be frought (sic) with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that at an immediate check is required to save the country.”

Holmes’ reframing of his view would foreshadow the standard in Brandenburg v. Ohio, where the Supreme Court ruled that even calling for violence is protected under the First Amendment unless there is a threat of “imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”

However, Navaroli, Stansbury, and others are still channeling the standard from Schenck, which is a curious choice for most Democrats in using a standard used against socialists and anti-war protesters.

Yet, Navaroli’s standard from Twitter makes the Schenck standard look like the model of clarity. Essentially, she adds that you also have to consider the theater, movie, and audience to decide what speech to allow. What could be treated as crying “Fire!” by any given person or in any given circumstances would change according to their “nuanced” judgment.

According to Navaroli, she and her staff would not allow the “safety [of others] to go the winds so that people can speak freely.” It is the classic defense of censorship in history and the touchstone of every authoritarian regime today. Today’s hearing will address the question of when corporate censorship programs become an extension of the government. However, while it is unclear how Twitter’s censorship made us more safe, Twitter’s “nuanced” standard certainly allowed free speech to “go to the winds” of censorship.

You can find the Stansbury-Navaroli exchange around the 5:00 mark below:


203 thoughts on ““Free Speech for Whom?”: Former Twitter Executive Makes Chilling Admission on the “Nuanced” Standard Used For Censorship”

  1. Todays Democratic Party can’t even agree that free speech is a fundamental right any more and they refuse to even investigate federal officials that used their offices to try (and often succeed) to suppress private citizens expressing their opinions. The fbi, nsa and others reached out to ban, shadowban and deplatform people because they didn’t like what they said. Case closed. Go ahead left, twist yourself into a knot to justify this one.

  2. These Demmunists are fine with lighting fires in theaters and then restraining people from raiding the alarm.

  3. Conservatives should have a website that identifies the who and why of people who have held important power and embraced serious anti-constitutional values. We must be vigilant not to allow those people to hold government power (including government employment) again.

  4. “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic”

    The aspect of this statement most often ignored is that it is referring to the CONSEQUENCES of FALSELY shouting Fire. It has nothing to do with actually preventing someone from shouting “Fire” – either falsely or in the presence of an actual fire. To actually prevent someone from falsely shouting “Fire” you would have to physically gag everyone in the theater.

    This is also known as “Prior Restraint” – an action that if it isn’t the alter ego of censorship, it’s the kissing cousin, and anathema to the entire paradigm of our Constitution, much less the 1st Amendment

  5. The two statements:
    “So whose free expression are we protecting at the expense of whose safety”
    “whose safety are we willing to allow to go the winds so that people can speak freely.”

    are a tautology (saying the same thing with different words; redundancy).

    The PROBLEM is that they are NOT protecting free expression and NOT allowing people to speak freely, because they have decided that some speech (and that turns out to be anything they disagree with) is “dangerous” and so they have to block it for “safety”.

    Thus for their perceived “safety” they shut down discussion, dissent, dialog, and debate.
    That is a standard practice of the left and their propaganda machines – of which Twitter has self-admitted that they are.

    1. Correct.
      It you have 100% free speech to say/yell ANYTHING in a theater.

      However, based upon the outcome of you doing that, there may be consequences.

      THAT is how rights and freedoms work – with responsibility, and with consequences for intentionally exercising your right in a manner that harms others.

      In a similar manner:
      You have a right to speak or write about another person, but slander and libel (lies in speech and in print) are criminal.

      And so it is with ALL rights.

  6. Neither common sense nor logic gets you from “shouting fire in a crowded theater” to any posted social media website content of any kind read in the privacy of one’s home.

  7. Jonathan, thank you for staying on top of this issue and providing detailed analysis. Very hard to find anywhere else.

  8. For the LUNATIC Left free speech is…..

    1. “We will TELL you WHAT you can say — and WHEN you can say it”

    2. “If you do not COMPLY — we will make you lose your job & we will ruin your life”

    1. Yep. One side is clearly expendable to them, and decidedly not safe. Certain inflammatory speech and do xing is fine if it threatens their enemies.

  9. Lefties want to qualify free speech as that with which THEY agree. Considering that the left used to BE for free speech as I remember the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in ’64. Now, free speech is dezinformatsiya? Bizarre.

  10. Suppose I discover something that is a cure for a disease ravaging the country, but those involved decide to censor me because my statements are a threat of some sort. Suppose that it later turns out that the discovery I made actually did work as I had claimed. In a second situation suppose that I had proof that masks did nothing beneficial but my statements were censored for not toeing the line. Since those who wore masks were lulling themselves into a false sense of security they would take additional risks not normally taken because they thought they were protected. The result was that many more people caught the disease and died. In both cases I was censored to protect the public from the claimed danger of my speech but the reality was that the public was endangered with a very real threat from this censorship that actually did cost lives. Many times we need to hear what we do not want to hear. The only real and true hate speech is censorship and propaganda.

    1. Neither common sense nor logic gets you from “shouting fire in a crowded theater” to any posted social media website content of any kind read in the privacy of one’s home.

  11. Professor Turley Writes:

    “at the center of the growing censorship scandal involving the company”

    See that..?? A “growing censorship scandal”..!!

    Oh, oh..! As a liberal that fills me with dread. If The New York Times starts calling this a “growing censorship scandal”, us liberals will have to turn on each other in spasms of finger pointing!

    But seriously, this “growing censorship scandal” is precisely the narrative Republicans are pushing. And as a Fox News employee, Johnathan Turley is obliged to peddle said narrative.

    Conveniently this narrative bolsters Trump’s ‘rigged election’ claims. The idea being that American voters would have surely reelected Trump had they known about Hunter Biden.

    Never mind that Trump spent most of 2020 denying the pandemic while hundreds were dying each week. Never mind that Trump’s 24-7, in-your-face presidency had become the telethon from hell. We were supposed to think that keeping Trump was better than ‘Sleepy Joe’.

    No one outside the rightwing media bubble honestly thinks conservatives were the victims of a ‘deep state plot’. The problem is that most Republicans are locked inside that bubble. Consequently these bogus hearings only reinforce conservative delusions as evidenced by the comments on this thread; most of which are written by..

      1. No. He is distinctly not delusional. He is an “influenceer”; a communist propagandist, indoctrinationist and brain washer.

        He is a deceiver and flimflam man who is frightened of his freedom; he will reward himself for the confiscation of your soul.

        He will provide a meager living to obtain the delivery of your freedom in exchange for your enslavement by the state.

        He offers a bad bargain with the devil.

        His is the Fresh Hell.

        1. Sophistry, agenda driven lies and the false usurpation of the moral high ground are hallmarks of the left.

    1. Anonymous – Speaking of bubbles, you say: “Conveniently this narrative bolsters Trump’s ‘rigged election’ claims. The idea being that American voters would have surely reelected Trump had they known about Hunter Biden.” A recent Rassmussen poll shows that almost half of Americans believe that revelation of the laptop story would have changed the Presidential election result: “Most shockingly, the Rasmussen survey revealed that almost half of Americans (48%) believe Trump would have won a second term if the media had fully reported on the laptop’s revelations rather than ignoring and attempting to suppress them.” https://nypost.com/ 2022/03/25/two-thirds-of-americans-say-hunter-biden-laptop-important-story-poll/ That is quite a bubble! On a related note, it is amusing that Hunter Biden’s attorney (really the Democrats’ attorney, since it is party donors who are financing his legal defense) has refused to comply with a subpoena from the House Oversight Committee for Hunter Bideen’s “business deals.” https://nypost.com/2023/02/09/house-demands-records-on-joe-bidens-involvement-in-hunter-dealings/. The claim seems to be that the records are irrelevant to any legislative purpose. I believe this is the same basis that Trump and his subordiants objected to Congressional subpoenas. It seems like a valid objection now.

    2. so hunters laptop being squashed and russian collusion are ok because you agree with it. let’s reinstate the department of misinformation so the federal government can tell us what is good for us. what could possibly go wrong?

    3. Trump denied the pandemic? yet he was the one who wanted the curtail travel while the likes of Pelosi and Schumer were calling him racist for such efforts? Someone needs to supress this posters hate “speech”.

    4. Goodness I wish you had posted on thr 144 character toy. I’ve never seen so many words say so little and then I realized…eadt coast college grad in some weak and soft social science such as philosophy?
      We get it son.

    5. Give that now about 1/3 of democratic voters say they would not have voted for Biden had they known about the Biden sydicates dealings in Ukraine – it is not unreasonable to beleive this constituttes election rigging.

      Given that Trump lost by 45,000 votes in 3 states – approximately 0.25% of the vote in those states, it is not hard to beleive that censorship changed the outcome of the election.

      I would further note, that those willing to violate the constitution are also willing to violate the law.

      You want people to beleive you did not engage in massive election fraud – then you should not have been even more vigorous shitting down inquiry into that.

      Recent testimony in the AZ Senate found that there were more than enough mailin ballots that were UNSIGNED (which is required by law) that were counted to flip the 2020 election. Separately there were more than enough where the Signature was “SS” – no matter what the voters actual names was to flip the election. And far more than enough where the signatures were not even close – not even the same first letter of the first name. Or just a stroke, to flip the election.

      No one trusts you.

      Why ?

      Because you lie over and over and over.

    6. As Biden noted during the Debates – 200K people had died of Covid.
      By Jan 20, 2021 that was 330K. In 11 months 30K people/month died while Trump was president.
      All without a vaccine.
      In the first 22 months of Joe Biden’s presidency, another 800K people died of Covid.

      Today most of us KNOW that There was nothing Trump could have done. Nothing Biden could have done.
      That everything that was done was a mistake. That is ALL made things worse.
      That NOTHING has been shown anywhere to be particularly effective against Covid.
      That the Vaccine which Trump moved heaven and earth to get done before the election – and succceed, except that Big Pharma conspired to wait until after the election to tell people – ultimate did not work, and probably made things worse.

      We know that Masks do not work – Public Health experts knew that in Jan 2020, but did not tell us.
      We know that lockdowns do not work – Public Health experts knew that in Jan 2020, but did not tell us.
      We now know that the vaccine does not work.

      I am not blaming Biden for anyhthing EXCEPT continuing to push nonsense long after we all know better.
      Why are you trying to Blame Trump – Biden did worse.

      BTW Accoding to JHU Current Covid deaths are just under 5K/week that is just under 25K/month. Trump is not president and has not been for 28 months. So very little has changed even today
      Except that we are not paying attention anymore.

      Nut reality is not your forte.

  12. (OT)

    Mike Pence and former NSA Robert O’Brien have been subpoenaed by Special Counsel Jack Smith (Trump investigation).

  13. I do not think the House will get anywhere unless they kill funding for the FBI and the other government agencies that were part of this. I just do not see that they will kill the money. If various states go after the Feds in local Judicial agencies then there could be more movement.

  14. TL;DR synopsis of Turley’s testimony today: “I know what I’m talking about ‘cuz I read it on the internet.”

  15. You are a partisan operative clown of the highest order and an embarrassment to our profession. GQ should be ashamed. Your performance in the House today was proof that you will say and do anything to further right wing political agendas while attempting to cloak them in the appearance of staid legal analysis. You were not in the meetings, you were not privy to communications, you have no special knowledge of Twitter operations, you have no special knowledge of any social media operations, you have no special or unique knowledge of FBI or other gov’t operations during the relevant time period, you have no knowledge of the authenticity of anything in the “Twitter Files”, no knowledge of the chain of custody, no knowledge of the obviously skewed and biased effort to collect and publish such materials, no knowledge of what materials Elon Musk is HIDING and refusing to produce in order to build HIS narrative in conformance with HIS agenda, etc. etc. et cetera. You would never have been allowed to sit in a witness chair in a court of law to spew the abject nonsense you spewed today and you know it. You should be embarrassed and ashamed, but you are not because this was not in service to the country or justice, but in service to a tribalist partisan agenda and your own self-aggrandizement and profit. You make a mockery of what it means to be an attorney and bring shame and scorn to our profession.

  16. “’Free Speech for Whom?’: Former Twitter Executive Makes Chilling Admission on the “Nuanced” Standard Used For Censorship”

    – Professor Turley

    Censorship is a red herring.

    The subversion and treason of Twitter executives must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

    Twitter executives committed the crimes of election fraud, election corruption, voter suppression, vote tampering, subversion, treason et al.

    Twitter committed treason by manipulating the 2020 election and by causing voters to engage “…in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort…,” as Biden was the evident and distinct choice of America’s clear, present, direct and mortal enemies, with potent, invading, Russian armies and insidious Chinese balloons.

    1. Seymour Hersh confirmed that America destroyed the Russian Nordstream pipeline, committing an ACT OF WAR against Russia et al.

Leave a Reply