ro khanna
Censorship of the Hunter Biden story might have helped my party, but it was bad for our democracy.

Defending free speech is easy when it's speech you agree with. Defending speech you dislike, or speech that doesn't advance your interests, is more challenging. But it is in exactly those uncomfortable situations that American democratic principles call on us to protect the free exchange of ideas and freedom of the press.

Free speech is a foundational value of our democracy. In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), which overturned a libel judgment that racist local officials had won in an Alabama court, Justice William Brennan Jr. wrote that "debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open." Brennan noted that this speech "may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials." The kind of political debates once held via letters to local papers, as well as in political ads such as the one at issue in Sullivan, have moved online, often in the form of tweets. Attacks on public officials and candidates for office have continued.

This tension was on full display when the New York Post's Hunter Biden laptop story dropped less than a month before the 2020 election. Twitter's suppression violated the First Amendment principles Brennan articulated in Sullivan. Twitter banned links to the story and suspended accounts that shared it, including President Trump's press secretary and the New York Post itself — arguing that the story violated company policy because it contained information obtained through illegal means. Under the same logic, they'd have to suspend any account that posted the Pentagon Papers, which is protected by New York Times Co. v. U.S. (1971), or the story of Mr. Trump's leaked tax returns.

As Silicon Valley's representative in Congress, I reached out to Twitter at the time to share these concerns. In an email meant to be private, but recently made public by Matt Taibbi's "Twitter Files" thread, I wrote to Twitter's general counsel that the company's actions "seemed to be a violation of First Amendment principles." Although Twitter is a private actor not legally bound by the First Amendment, Twitter has come to function as a modern public square. As such, Twitter has a responsibility to the public to allow the free exchange of ideas and open debate.

There are, to be sure, limits to certain types of speech. In Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), the Supreme Court held that the government could prosecute speech if it will produce "imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action." Sullivan allowed liability for false defamation of a public official in limited circumstances. But in the case of the New York Post's laptop story, there was no threat of lawless action, and the Post would be responsible for any defamation — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act absolves Twitter of liability.

I agreed with Twitter's decision to take down explicit photos of Hunter Biden and to prevent algorithmic amplification of the Post story. But there's a difference between sharing and artificially amplifying. Social-media companies shouldn't have bots that amplify speech in the first place — they add chaos to the dialogue. They certainly shouldn't be abusing people's data by using it to target them with sensational content. We need to uphold the sovereign right to our data. Even so, the story itself shouldn't have been censored, and those who shared it shouldn't have been suspended. That went too far.

To the extent Twitter makes value decisions on the forum — types of conspiracy theories or hate-inciting content that gets removed or isn't promoted — the company should have clear and public criteria. Elon Musk has said Twitter will be "more aggressive than ever, using technology to reduce the reach of hateful Tweets and prevent their amplification." Transparency into how decisions are made, including some recourse to appeal, is crucial — with some independent committee or board that will thoughtfully consider a complaint of censorship.

A robust defense of First Amendment principles online is more important than ever. Citizens in our polarized country need to have conversations with each other based on mutual respect. Suppressing speech we don't like leaves us blind to alternative perspectives that help us see the whole, complex truth.

My belief in a marketplace of ideas is why I do interviews on media channels across the political spectrum. It's why I engage perspectives different from mine, why I visit factory towns, rural areas and Republican-dominated congressional districts. Imagine if Democratic lawmakers were required to have town halls in deep red areas and Republicans in deep blue ones.

There will always be extremists and partisan media outlets that increase polarization and make conversations more difficult. But we would be wise to remember the teaching of the great liberal political philosopher John Rawls: "It is extremely unwise to conceive of the ideal political society as moved by scarce supererogatory moral motives alone. That leads to hating other persons and taking pleasure in condemning them as falling short." Rawls believed we should be humble about our own certitude of truth and not rush to condemn others who we think don't measure up. Robust public debate is the first step in America's healing and reconciliation.

Mr. Khanna, a Democrat, represents California's 17th Congressional District.