Trump’s Twitter Tantrum
As Mr. Trump attacks social media, let’s revisit a 17th century argument that inspired 18th century revolutionaries.
John Milton wrote 𝘼𝙧𝙚𝙤𝙥𝙖𝙜𝙞𝙩𝙞𝙘𝙖; 𝘼 𝙨𝙥𝙚𝙚𝙘𝙝 𝙤𝙛 𝙈𝙧. 𝙅𝙤𝙝𝙣 𝙈𝙞𝙡𝙩𝙤𝙣 𝙛𝙤𝙧 𝙩𝙝𝙚 𝙇𝙞𝙗𝙚𝙧𝙩𝙮 𝙤𝙛 𝙐𝙣𝙡𝙞𝙘𝙚𝙣𝙘’𝙙 𝙋𝙧𝙞𝙣𝙩𝙞𝙣𝙜, 𝙩𝙤 𝙩𝙝𝙚 𝙋𝙖𝙧𝙡𝙖𝙢𝙚𝙣𝙩 𝙤𝙛 𝙀𝙣𝙜𝙡𝙖𝙣𝙙  in 1644 to protest the 𝘱𝘳𝘦-𝘱𝘶𝘣𝘭𝘪𝘤𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯 [emphasis important] licensing and censorship of books. It’s probably the most influential and passionate defense of the freedom of speech and expression ever written, and it’s the philosophical foundation of part of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the freedom of speech, or of the press …”
As Mr. Trump erupts in tantrums over a fact check on Twitter, the Founding Fathers, borrowing from John Milton, institutionalized a check on his power to interfere with free speech on social media or anywhere else. That’s not to say Mr. Trump can’t make their corporate lives miserable through endless investigations by the Justice Department, but he can’t shut them down.
Mr. Milton, poet and none-to-gentle polemicist, had himself been subject to censorship for pamphlets he wrote advocating divorce prior to the English Civil War. Later in life, after Oliver Cromwell’s death and Charles II had assumed the English throne, Milton’s written justifications for the beheading of Charles I, 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘛𝘦𝘯𝘶𝘳𝘦 𝘰𝘧 𝘒𝘪𝘯𝘨𝘴 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘔𝘢𝘨𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘳𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘴, 𝘌𝘪𝘬𝘰𝘯𝘰𝘬𝘭𝘢𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘴, 𝘋𝘦𝘧𝘦𝘯𝘴𝘪𝘰 𝘱𝘳𝘰 𝘗𝘰𝘱𝘶𝘭𝘰 𝘈𝘯𝘨𝘭𝘪𝘤𝘢𝘯𝘰, and 𝘋𝘦𝘧𝘦𝘯𝘴𝘪𝘰 𝘴𝘦𝘤𝘶𝘯𝘥𝘢, meant that his life was in danger. His books were publicly burned by the state executioner, and Milton (by then blind) was saved from being hanged only by the intervention of fellow poet and Member of Parliament Andrew Marvell.
Milton understood the evils of censorship.
Milton’s basic idea in 𝘈𝘳𝘦𝘰𝘱𝘢𝘨𝘪𝘵𝘪𝘤𝘢  was the 𝙧𝙞𝙜𝙝𝙩 𝙖𝙣𝙙 𝙙𝙪𝙩𝙮 of every man  as a rational being to express his ideas and beliefs. Decisions in society are reached by open discussion, and the sources of information must not be contaminated by government authority in the interests of a political party. 𝙋𝙤𝙡𝙞𝙩𝙞𝙘𝙖𝙡 𝙪𝙣𝙞𝙩𝙮 𝙞𝙨 𝙗𝙚𝙨𝙩 𝙨𝙚𝙘𝙪𝙧𝙚𝙙 𝙣𝙤𝙩 𝙗𝙮 𝙛𝙤𝙧𝙘𝙚 𝙗𝙪𝙩 𝙗𝙮 𝙖 𝙘𝙤𝙣𝙨𝙚𝙣𝙨𝙪𝙨 𝙩𝙝𝙖𝙩 𝙧𝙚𝙨𝙥𝙚𝙘𝙩𝙨 𝙫𝙖𝙧𝙞𝙚𝙩𝙮 𝙤𝙛 𝙤𝙥𝙞𝙣𝙞𝙤𝙣.
Before he begins his defense of free speech, Mr. Milton discusses something else that is near and dear to my heart: the purpose of reading. Milton notes that being “learned” involves reading “books of all sorts.” I’m quite happy that Milton assumes, against all the available evidence, that being “learned” is a goal of many people in society rather than being a peculiarity of his own ambitions.
He argues that even reading the “bad” or heretical books (his being a most religious age) is important because we can discover what is true by examining what is false. According to Milton, ideas should be examined and accepted or rejected by the reader’s own choice, not by a governmental licensing authority [I would add: or a corporate fiefdom]. Milton did not believe that our minds are corrupted simply by encountering a falsehood. In fact, he points out that encountering a falsehood in a book can actually lead to virtuous action.
It’s always struck me as hilariously ironic that Milton’s example of a “virtuous action” arising from an encounter with a falsehood involves Paul’s Christian converts burning books containing “magick.” Burning books! And Milton himself, as Secretary of Foreign Tongues under Cromwell, was for twenty years responsible for censorship in England.
From my perspective, this betrays a 𝘱𝘰𝘵𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘪𝘢𝘭 weakness in Milton’s defense of free speech: Milton argued against 𝙥𝙧𝙚-𝙥𝙪𝙗𝙡𝙞𝙘𝙖𝙩𝙞𝙤𝙣 censorship, but he wasn’t opposed to censorship in all cases. If a book proved harmful after publication, it could censored.
As individuals and a society, we have to tread very carefully here, because the idea that it’s okay for Christians (or a government) to burn or ban books for religious or ideological reasons is unacceptable and dangerous. The only exception that I can imagine are for books (or other speech) that advocate violence against individuals or groups.
And note: the exception doesn’t include books advocating the violent overthrow of the government. However much I deplore violence, and I do deplore it, 𝙩𝙝𝙚 𝙞𝙙𝙚𝙖 𝙤𝙛 𝙤𝙫𝙚𝙧𝙩𝙝𝙧𝙤𝙬𝙞𝙣𝙜 𝙩𝙝𝙚 𝙜𝙤𝙫𝙚𝙧𝙣𝙢𝙚𝙣𝙩 𝙘𝙖𝙣𝙣𝙤𝙩 𝙗𝙚 𝙘𝙚𝙣𝙨𝙤𝙧𝙚𝙙 𝙞𝙣 𝙖 𝙛𝙧𝙚𝙚 𝙨𝙤𝙘𝙞𝙚𝙩𝙮.
 Full text at http://www.dartmouth.edu/…/reading_r…/areopagitica/text.html
 The name, 𝘈𝘳𝘦𝘰𝘱𝘢𝘨𝘪𝘵𝘪𝘤𝘢, refers to The Areopagus, a hill in Athens which was the site of real and imaginary tribunals. The Athenian orator Isocrates wrote a speech, 𝘈𝘳𝘦𝘰𝘱𝘢𝘨𝘪𝘵𝘪𝘬𝘰𝘴, in the 4th century BCE, in an attempt to revive the tribunals.
 We would now write “every human being” but Milton, in this respect, was a product of his time.