Since his acquisition of Twitter, Elon Musk has styled himself the very avatar of “free speech,” descending from on high to defend us against the forces of “censorship.” On the whole, I think he’s sincere in his approach to the issue. I also think he’s in error as to what, precisely, “free speech” means.
To be fair, Musk benefits from a great deal of support in his misunderstanding — even more from his opponents than his supporters.
Take, for example, Guardian columnist Nesrine Malike, who tells us that “free speech is not simply about saying whatever you want, unchecked, but about negotiating complicated compromises. … for some speech to be free, other speech has to be limited.”
Unsurprisingly, Malike wants speech she agrees with to be “free,” and speech she disagrees with to be “limited,” with law as the instrument of “limitation.”
Musk agrees: “By ‘free speech,'” he tweeted on April 26, “I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.”
Speech regulated by law — even law that embodies “the will of the people,” were there such a thing — isn’t free speech.
Free speech is simply an absence: The absence of threats of force (by law or otherwise) to forbid or punish speech.
I’m a big fan of free speech. The moral principle underlying it is that people aren’t property, and their thoughts and expressions are thus no one else’s to rightfully control. The practical value of it is that freedom to debate makes it possible for us to solve problems instead of just obeying orders.
I’m also a fan of what Musk is actually defending: Twitter as a permissive platform.
Just as your right to keep and bear arms imposes no obligation on my part to provide you with an AR-15 or let you use my back yard as a firing range, your right to free speech imposes no obligation on Elon Musk’s part to provide you with a Twitter account or let you use his servers as your soapbox.
He’s indicated his intention to let pretty much anyone have a Twitter account, and to let Twitter account holders say as much (or at least almost as much) as the law allows them to say.
That’s not free speech, but (assuming he means it) it’s about as close as he’s allowed to get to free speech, and he deserves our thanks for it. A poke in the timeline with a sharp tweet is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.
Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.