Twitter’s unplugging of journalist gives pause

When Twitter bounced Guy Adams, a reporter for The Independent, from its service, it didn’t violate the First Amendment.

The First Amendment protects us from government suppression, not the actions of private enterprise. Still, the incident has important implications for a free press.

Adams was critical of NBC’s coverage of the Olympics, including the tape delay of the opening ceremonies. In sharing his outrage, Adams tweeted the work e-mail address of Gary Zenkel, NBC’s president of Olympics coverage. The idea was to drive complaints about the coverage to Zenkel’s inbox.

After a complaint by NBC, Adams’ account was suspended. Twitter has a policy banning the sharing of private e-mail addresses, and this apparently led to Adams’ suspension.

“I didn’t publish a private email address,” Adams said in his defense. “Just a corporate one, which is widely available to anyone with access to Google.”

Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of Search Engine Land, has a different take. By searching for Zenkel’s e-mail address from the day before Adams tweeted it, he found only six references to Zenkel’s e-mail over the last 16 years.

Was Zenkel’s e-mail public before the notorious tweet? “Definitely not, I’d say,” Sullivan wrote.

It’s easy to get lost in the weeds on this story. Today Twitter reinstated Adams’ account, but the ability of the journalist to tweet things like “NBC are utter bastards” isn’t the key here.

Of greater concern is that Twitter has become an extraordinary vehicle for disseminating news and information in real time around the globe. Where journalists once viewed it with suspicion or as a toy, they now regard it as one of the most valuable tools of the trade. It allows you to communicate with your readers directly and spontaneously.

Until Twitter says you can’t. It’s a bit chilling to note that a vehicle used regularly by tens of thousands of journalists worldwide can be turned off at will.

No, this is not a call for “somebody” to do something about that. Government has no role here.

But the outpouring of tweets in support of Adams and criticizing the suspension should get Twitter’s attention. Twitter owes its success to being a real-time and unfiltered mode of communication.

Twitter has every right to establish standards for its service, but it also needs to exercise restraint and common sense. Free speech doesn’t get much more immediate or efficient than this.

Ken Paulson is president and chief executive officer of the First Amendment Center. This article first appeared on its website at www.firstamendmentcenter.org.

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