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Far from free speech savior, Elon Musk increasingly looks like a false prophet
Twitter was abuzz yesterday with the latest news about what’s happening on . . . Twitter.
The platform suspended the accounts of numerous journalists who Twitter owner Elon Musk accused of doxing the location of him and his family. So far, though, there seems to be no evidence the journalists did anything more than report on Twitter’s suspension of the account @ElonJet, which used public flight data to share the location of the mogul’s private plane.
In any situation where you have one person deciding what can and cannot be said by the citizens of a country or the users of an internet platform, the odds are stacked against free expression. That’s because whoever is in charge inevitably must contend with their natural impulse to rid the world of speech that upsets them. That requires thick skin and true dedication to principle.
It increasingly appears that Musk lacks both.
Despite portraying himself as Twitter’s free speech savior, Musk continues to make arbitrary decisions and rule changes based on his personal tolerance for particular kinds of speech. But freedom of expression demands protection of speech that deeply offends or enrages people precisely because we all have a unique blend of beliefs, biases, and sensitivities shaped by our genes and life experiences — which in turn means we all have different ideas about what speech is beyond the pale.
Free speech culture, Elon Musk, and Twitter
In the neverending debate surrounding Twitter under Elon Musk, the distinction between free speech as a legal right and cultural value can get confused.
To be sure, Musk has in fact made moves to boost free speech on Twitter — such as restoring accounts banned under previous management, eliminating speech restrictions, and offering a glimpse into the company’s content moderation practices. These are positive developments. But Musk’s recent actions suggest he is motivated not by a principled commitment to free speech for everyone, but simply by a desire to allow more speech that he likes.
Of course, the First Amendment protects Musk’s right to turn Twitter into his own private playground. He bought it, after all. But Musk continues to claim he wants the platform to be a free speech haven. That won’t happen until his actions match his rhetoric and he finds the will to resist that all-too-human impulse to censor.
The suspension of the journalists’ accounts is only the latest in an increasingly long list of free speech controversies on the platform under Musk’s leadership. It’s getting hard to keep up with all of them, and while they deserve our attention, the weekly flare-ups on Twitter should not distract us from the many other threats to free speech this country faces.
Here is a brief overview of important free speech stories from the past few days that you might have missed in all the twitter about Twitter:
- Yesterday the Senate passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes an unconstitutional provision empowering federal judges to order websites to remove personal information about the judges and their families — including information like a judge’s birthday or where a family member works or goes to school. Judicial security is important, and Congress has ways to further that interest. But as a letter co-signed by FIRE explains, the NDAA provision is overbroad and would hamper the ability of citizens and the press to speak on issues of public concern, including judicial conflicts of interest.
- Also yesterday, the tech industry trade association NetChoice brought a lawsuit challenging a new California law that regulates online speech in the name of protecting children’s privacy and safety. As NetChoice argues, California “is violating the First Amendment by telling sites how to manage constitutionally protected speech, not how to secure sensitive data about children.”
- Meanwhile, lawmakers and other government officials are increasingly putting pressure on social media companies to censor “hate speech” and “misinformation,” and threatening to pass laws that would do the same, raising serious First Amendment concerns. Relatedly, a new poll found that a majority of Americans believe social media companies have an obligation to restrict hateful or inaccurate posts. As FIRE has explained many times, the problems with regulating so-called hate speech and misinformation are legion.
- One threat to legislate against hate speech already came to pass. New York enacted a law that requires websites to adopt policies to address speech that could “vilify” or “humiliate” someone based on a protected class, like race, gender, or religion. FIRE is suing to stop New York from conscripting social media companies and bloggers into the ranks of its unconstitutional speech-police force.
These issues and many others demand the attention of everyone who cares about free speech.
FIRE’s award-winning Newsdesk covers the free speech news you need to stay informed.