Free speech seems so deceptively simple. Most people think it means that everyone should be able to say whatever they want to say, whenever and wherever they want to say it, without public or private consequence. This is wildly, preposterously wrong. Not just legally, but also in principle. So what is free speech, really? And how can we separate the reality from the wild claims and “freeze peach” grift?
- Free speech is a matter of law: The First Amendment to the United States Constitution grants every citizen broad protection from government interference to speech. However the list of exceptions is long, with a fraught history of legal conflict. This includes incitement, libel, false advertising, lying to a police officer, lying under oath, counterfeiting, disclosing classified information, obscenity, fighting words, threats against public officials, and restrictions based on the special capacity of government.
- Speech cannot be made consequence-free: What you say will have a direct impact on your personal relationships, your employment status, your reputation, and your business. Choose your words wisely.
- Contract law can limit speech: non-disclosure agreements and terms of service agreements, are just two of the ways that you can legally waive your right to free speech through binding contracts.
- The public square: You have the right to speak publicly, but not the right to be heard in any given venue. Publishers of books, magazines, films, television, radio, and social content, as well as owners of public performance spaces, are free to decline to promote or distribute anyone’s speech for any reason–or no reason.
- Academia: Public institutions of learning are the primary arbiters of facts. Academia’s role is to train the next generation how to separate truth from falsehood. So the Academy must collectively decide through peer review what constitutes justifiably true knowledge and good scholarship, and what does not qualify. This involves the active suppression of lies, demagoguery, rumors, and bad data, (i.e. speech).
“Free-speech absolutism” is a power grab
The above list is by no means complete. It only scratches the surface of the many reasons why truly unfettered speech is not only impossible, but undesirable. The entire illusion of “freedom of speech” as it exists in common discourse, is oversimplified demagoguery. Especially claims of “free-speech absolutism.” The NPR story link refers to Elon Musk, who’s in the process of revealing his anti-democratic agenda through the purchase of Twitter. It’s time we recognized his gambit for exactly what it is: a massive power grab. He’s not in this for anyone’s freedom–of anything.
So let’s examine the many levels of hypocrisy surrounding free speech. When anyone says they want freedom of speech, it always implies they want to be able to say things that other people don’t want them to say. On the other hand, everyone crowing about free speech, has things that they personally don’t want other people to say.
Effectively this is “free speech for me, censorship for you.” Approximately zero percent of free speech advocates are honest enough to admit this.
Essential conditions for freedom of expression
Like every other human right, freedom of speech must (and does) have limits. Not because we want one group of people to arbitrarily be able to shut down others. But because the rights of different groups conflict with each other. There must be compromise, fair play, and tradeoffs. All parties concerned must accept some limitations, to prevent their own rights from being infringed by others. That’s why absolutism can’t work.
A vast subtopic in political philosophy concerns positive vs. negative liberty. “Freedom to,” vs. “Freedom from.” The limits of free speech are entirely governed by both constructs.
Both types of liberty are pivotal. Positive liberty would mean your legal freedom to stand at a podium in front of a crowd in the public square, without being arrested by the government. Negative liberty would mean you have freedom from being shouted down by other speakers. Both must exist in order for communication to take place. Importantly, freedom from being shouted down has a lot to do with whether the crowd likes what you’re trying to say. No law can practically grant you the freedom to tell a crowd something it does not want to hear. Freedom of speech only grants you the right to try to persuade them. Social media crowds may yet be wise enough to set some limits of what they will tolerate, before they revolt or log off.
Liberal vs. Conservative attitudes toward speech
If you’re a liberal, you generally don’t want people to have freedom to use hate speech, or promote dangerous lies and conspiracy theories. That’s because liberals recognize that disinformation endangers democracy and public safety, and that targets of hate speech have the right to have freedom from harassment and violence. What good are laws protecting freedom of expression, (freedom to), if libraries can’t host “Drag Queen Story Hour,” without freedom from disruption by aggressive transphobic protesters? Or donut shops getting firebombed for innocent “drag” marketing stunts?
If you’re a conservative, you’ll argue that even hate speech should be protected, and that Proud Boys crashing Drag Queen Story Hour are within their Constitutional rights to loudly express their opinion at a library, since it’s public property. I have no idea how they plan to justify firebombing a private business. I’m sure they’ll think of something. Because what they never do, is take responsibility.
Conservatives also generally consider that public climate-change denial, antivax-propaganda, and election denialism, (even though provably false), are fully acceptable speech, since “everyone has the right to their own opinion.” They also tend to clam up and look away, whenever one of their own calls for religious violence against persecuted minorities such as gay or transgender people.
Right wingers just don’t seem to care about the direct connection between speech and violence. If preachers tell enough people, enough times, that “God wants gay people dead,” eventually someone’s going to carry out that threat. Especially if the violent rhetoric gets amplified on social media that reaches millions. And that brings us right back to the role of Elon Musk, and his new play-toy, Twitter.
Russian propaganda, baseless conspiracies, and Alex Jones
When I saw this tweet back in March, I knew the world was in serious trouble. And that was about a month before Musk announced his intent to acquire Twitter.
If Musk can’t draw the line at Russian state propaganda, where exactly would he draw it? Would Joseph Goebbels have gotten a pass? Tokyo Rose? Donald Trump, who is rumored to be headed for Twitter reinstatement? Would Hitler have gotten a blue check? Is there any line that can’t be crossed under the rubric of free speech absolutism? It’s an absurdity bordering on complete moral blindness. As Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel famously remarked, “neutrality favors the oppressor.”
Is the bird free from censorship? Or free to hate? Because those two priorities can’t be reconciled. If Twitter is free to hate, then marginalized communities aren’t free from the danger of mass trolling, doxxing, and harassment by Twitter mobs, because the platform has taken sides, against keeping them safe.
The transaction was finalized on October 27, 2022. Elon Musk has barely been “chief twit” for a week, and already there are serious spikes of hate speech.
Musk can’t make up his mind. He wrote an open letter to Twitter advertisers in which he said, “Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences!” Which was strangely out of character for a “free speech absolutist.” But then he fired Vijaya Gadde, the head of trust and safety, and locked out all but 15 of the hundreds of employees who had previously been authorized to moderate content. And bragged about it. Later, he tweeted that Twitter would be forming a content moderation council with “widely diverse viewpoints.”
What does this mean, exactly? It’s impossible to know. An article in the Verge called “Welcome to hell, Elon,” lays out the dilemma:
What I mean is that you are now the King of Twitter, and people think that you, personally, are responsible for everything that happens on Twitter now. It also turns out that absolute monarchs usually get murdered when shit goes sideways.
Here are some examples: you can write as many polite letters to advertisers as you want, but you cannot reasonably expect to collect any meaningful advertising revenue if you do not promise those advertisers “brand safety.” That means you have to ban racism, sexism, transphobia, and all kinds of other speech that is totally legal in the United States but reveals people to be total assholes. So you can make all the promises about “free speech” you want, but the dull reality is that you still have to ban a bunch of legal speech if you want to make money. And when you start doing that, your creepy new right-wing fanboys are going to viciously turn on you, just like they turn on every other social network that realizes the same essential truth.
So what will Elon do? Will he realize the vital importance of being a responsible content broker? Or will he follow his ridiculous teenage-fantasy libertarian ideology. Will he reward the insurrectionist former president Trump with 80 million new ways to foment political violence? Can he possibly plan to re-platform disgraced “Sandy-Hook-was-a-false-flag” conspiracy-monger Alex Jones? Will he ignore the fact that a jury just decided that dude did about a billion dollars worth of harm to the grieving parents of murdered children?
Can unlimited power be reconciled with ethics?
The signs do not bode well. “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” No one knows who first uttered those words. But just two days after Musk took over Twitter, he failed the test.
On Friday, October 28, 2022, Paul Pelosi, the 82-year old husband of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was viciously attacked with a hammer in his home, and his skull fractured. The assailant was a full-blown MAGA / QAnon nutjob. It was a perfect illustration of the terrible power of decades of unfettered right wing hate-speech against Nancy Pelosi, to inspire stochastic terrorism.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tweeted a response to the horrific attack:
Now, picture this: You’re Elon Musk, you have over 100 million followers, and you just bought perhaps the second most powerful social network in the world.
You see this story come across your feed. Do you…
- Tweet your condolences, adding that you will do everything in your power to rein in hate speech on your new platform. Or do you…
- Tweet a reply that “there is a tiny possibility that there might be a little more to this story than meets the eye,” and then link a fringe conspiracy site claiming that the vicious attack against an 82-year old man was a kinky gay tryst gone wrong?
Holy fuck, he chose option number two. I’m sorry, but who the fuck does that??? Certainly not someone who should have a hundred million followers, in any sort of benevolent universe. Musk later deleted the tweet, but not until it had been amplified and shared tens of thousands of times, and widely reported as news. Launching yet another conspiracy theory that will be knocking around in millions of addled right-wing brains for years.
What does Musk really believe?
The incident underscored that Elon Musk is simply besotted with extreme right-wing ideology. He’s fully on board with blaring out baseless and destructive conspiracy theories, truth be damned. He’s become increasingly erratic, combative and outspoken against what he calls “wokeism” and “political correctness.”
And wow, what a blast from the past. The term “political correctness” (“PC” for short) was first used pejoratively by Allan Bloom in his 1987 book “The Closing of the American Mind.” Ever since, it’s been used to mock linguistic reformers and social justice proponents. If you lived through the 1980s, you also know this was Rush Limbaugh’s favorite dog whistle. Next thing you know, Musk will be tweeting about “Feminazis.” I just don’t understand the exasperating right-wing tendency to fulminate about being asked not to deliberately say things that hurt people.
It would be one thing to lament that limiting free speech might cause harm or injustice. But no. Musk is specifically upset that advertisers might demand that he force Twitter users to tone down their hatred, anti-Semitism, white supremacy, racism, sexism, homophobia or transphobia.
Why would that be bad? Unless you sympathize with those things?
Elon’s ideological rot goes far beyond sympathy for hate speech. Now he’s blaming activists for a precipitous drop in Twitter ad revenue since he took over–and mass exodus of over a million users. Instead of taking responsibility for his own missteps driving people away, he’s trying to pawn the whole self-created fiasco off on liberals–whining about “free speech” yet again.
When all else fails, attack the news media
It’s not just “wokeness” and “political correctness” he’s after. He’s also been using his ultra-megaphone to go after the other favorite right wing bête noire, the “mainstream media.” This time, I tweeted back.
Who are you going to believe? Loose-cannon free-speech absolutist Elon Musk, or The Guardian, founded in 1821, that’s been delivering hard news for 201 years?
Next, he made a joke implying that The New York Times (founded in 1851, delivering hard news for 171 years) was “false news.”
How positively Trumpian. Will there also be a Musk University school of journalism in our future?
Is he just trolling us?
The wealthiest man in the world, has now become its biggest troll. So big he owns his own social network. It’s only fitting that I troll him right back. (Shhh–here’s the scoop–don’t believe a word of it!)
You see, Elon Musk really isn’t batshit, or conservative at all. He’s crazy like a fox–a really smart CEO who knew that half of Americans would absolutely never buy electric cars from a California liberal.
So he picked up stakes, moved to Texas and built a Gigafactory in Austin. Then he started shitposting his crackpot theories about epidemiology and Covid lockdowns, and spent $44 billion to turn Twitter into a right-wing sewer. He did all that just to double Tesla’s sales. Now you know his real secret evil plan to turn a profit on the Twitter deal: MAGAts can now buy a Tesla to “own the libs.”
As Bill Maher would say, “I don’t know it for a fact–I just know it’s true.”