Elon Musk last week promised the world a treasure trove internal Twitter documents revealing how the social media company had suppressed reporting from Hunter Biden’s laptop in 2020. The billionaire claimed that these so-called Twitter Files proved “free speech suppression”. Even though the document dump was a good one, it didn’t yield any new information. For supporters, however, the details are not as important as the narrative. This is another battle in Musk’s grand war to enable and protect “free speech” — almost everywhere.
This is a very appealing crusade for those who are on the right. But is free speech really worth saving?
The essence was created from the need for protection of speech that we don’t like, and not speech that we love. It doesn’t matter if the speech we love is protected. However, it does need protection from those who might hate it or want to make it difficult or impossible for others to access it. John Milton’s 1644 pamphlet, Areopagitica, highlighted this difficult goal clearly. He urged that the market for ideas be open to everyone, so that true ideas could not be hidden from the public because they were wrongly considered false.
Milton believed that humans are naturally rational and capable of discerning truth from falsehood. Thomas Jefferson, an early advocate of the First Amendment did it too. This assumption about the human nature of humans has been dangerous. It has been tested many times over the years. It has been tested to the limit in recent months by Musk’s personal vision of free speech and his acquisition and administration of Twitter.
Before we go into this, let’s first clarify what the First Amendment is. It states that Congress and the federal government, and also any state or local government as defined in the 14th Amendment cannot limit or abridge speech or the press. As far as I know Elon Musk is not part any government. Elon Musk is the CEO and owner of several private companies. He can do pretty much whatever he wants with Twitter. He can set whatever rules he likes and then break them whenever he feels like it. Even if Twitter were still a publicly traded company, this would be true. The stockholders could hold Musk responsible in such a case. However, as far as the First Amendment was concern, he could still do what he wanted — invite Ye to Twitter, ban him, and then invite him back.
However, freedom of speech does not necessarily mean that there are no limits. An online criminal conspiracy would be a suitable and necessary target for government intervention and prosecution. Falsely shouting in a crowded theatre (the famous example given by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., in the Supreme Court’s 1918 Schenck v. United States), is also prohibited. We can all agree that endangering lives is a valid reason to restrict a communication. However, spreading lies and conspiracy theories about something so deadly as Covid-19 deserves government prohibition.
Musk’s bid to purchase Twitter was unsuccessfully rescinded. However, he was also the author of dangerous nonsense regarding the pandemic, which promoted chloroquine to be a possible cure. Twitter began to label and then remove tweets about the pandemic before Musk. Similar reasons, the endangering human lives — Twitter before Musk correctly concluded Donald Trump’s tweets could inspire violence after Jan. 6, 2020.
Musk has invited Trump back since he took control of Twitter. He declared it a place absolute freedom speech, or at the very least almost , and he also decreed that Twitter would not enforce its ban on Covid misinformation. He is entitled to do so as CEO. It feels as though Musk’s actions at Twitter head are being misaligned with his statements about free speech.
Being close to an absoluteist about freedom of speech, press and media — that the government should keep its hands off of those media of communication and not interfere — it is difficult for me to call for government intervention. A few years back, I stated that I did not agree with Karl Popper’s “paradoxof tolerance” reasoning. This reasoning states that a democratic government that allows fascist ideas to be published is setting the stage for its own destruction. I said that the mere censorship and publication of fascist ideas was a major step towards fascism. This was Dec. 22, 2020, just two weeks before the attack at the Capitol. John Maynard Keynes said, “When facts change, my mind changes.” What are you going to do sir?
Fascism is no longer an abstract concept in academic debates about freedom of press.
The facts are changing in America and all over the globe. Fascism is no longer an abstract concept in academic debates about freedom of press. It is a result of the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion in Ukraine. It lives according to antisemites and white supremacists in the United States. Are their hateful words worthy of First Amendment protection? Is their hateful speech something that we, as a democracy, must accept?
Musk’s self-proclaimed defenses of free speech are admirable — the majority of Americans remain committed to this fundamental principle of constitutional freedom. However, such proclamations can be manipulative, as we saw in the “Twitter Files” debacle.
Many of his actions give us cause to pause. Do we tolerate too much?
James R. Schlesinger, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and other people have stated that everyone has the right to their opinions, but not their facts. This is especially true when those twisted facts threaten our democracy or our lives.