Category Archives: Op-Eds

“Free Speech” and “Permissive Platforms” Aren’t the Same Thing, But They’re Both Good

Blue-Speech-Bubble

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.

PUBLICATION/CITATION HISTORY

Gridlock Just Ain’t What it Used to be

Photo by Martin Falbisoner. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Photo by Martin Falbisoner. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The 2022 midterm election results “stand as an expression of overwhelming lack of confidence in the major parties,” J.D. Tuccille writes at Reason magazine, “with a resulting breather for the country resulting from the split decision’s ensuing, and quite welcome, gridlock.”

Tuccille’s sigh of relief is only partial. While Republicans’ slight majority in the House of Representatives and 40+ seat “filibuster-capable” Senate minority means the most ambitious Democratic legislation won’t make it to President Joe Biden’s desk to be signed into law, he notes, “[t]he increasingly autocratic nature of the presidency allows enormous room for the nation’s chief executive to act unilaterally.”

Like his predecessors, Biden has a pen and a phone. And he’s proven himself at least as, if not more, inclined to use them to buy time (and more importantly, as columnist James Bovard notes with regard to “student loan forgiveness,” buy votes) even when he freely admits in advance that the courts will likely overturn his orders.

I’m even less optimistic than Tuccille about the potential benefits of gridlock — because it just ain’t what it used to be.

Once upon a time, and not that long ago, Congress at least occasionally fought real battles, over real issues, with winners and losers. Legislation passed or it didn’t. The Current Thing got done, or it got thrown into the dustbin (until after the next election, anyway).

These days, ideas that can’t pass as stand-alone bills get slipped into “must-pass” omnibus bills.

Take, for example, Democrats’ desire to add women to the Selective Service System’s draft registration requirements. That’s in the current “National Defense Authorization Act.”

“The defense bill isn’t the place for Democrats to indulge the wild ideas of their latest social experiments, like forcing women to register for the draft,” US Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) complains.

It looks like Cotton may have to either give up his love of big military spending — fat chance — or vote for a bill including said “social experiment.”

And Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) seems to be planning to fold the NDAA into an even larger end-of-year spending package, forcing other members of Congress to make such all-or-nothing decisions.

That’s the problem with the current version of “gridlock”: Instead of neither side getting anything it wants, both sides get the WORST things they want, even before the president pulls out his pen and starts fiddling with his phone.

That’s not “gridlock” — it’s unlimited government.

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.

PUBLICATION/CITATION HISTORY

#leavingtwitter is Tiresome Performance Art

Photo by Ben Schumin. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
Photo by Ben Schumin. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Have you ever encountered a klansman at the grocery store? I have. I instantly recognized him as a member of the Ku Klux Klan because I’d seen him speak (sans hood) at a Klan rally (I was one of the protesters, not one of the klansmen) and on local TV repping the organization.

I didn’t speak with him, both because I didn’t want to and because I didn’t have to.

I also didn’t roll my cart to the front of the store, abandon it, loudly announce that if he was allowed to shop there I wouldn’t be shopping there, stomp out in a huff, and tell all my friends that if they ever wanted to talk to me a grocery store, I’d be at the one across town.

Shortly after Elon Musk purchased and took control of Twitter, the hashtag #leavingtwitter began to trend as various people (including “celebrities,” many of whom I’ve never heard)  metaphorically stomped off of the platform because … well, because.

There are lots of reasons to leave Twitter.

Some of those reasons — it’s turned into a time-wasting addiction, it feels creepy to be advertised to based on the algorithm’s surveillance of one’s interests, etc. — make sense to me. It’s not that they’re good or bad per se. They’re just personal choices that make sense to the people leaving.  And with numerous alternatives to choose from, it’s not like #leavingtwitter means doing without social media. No biggie.

The biggest factor driving the #leavingtwitter trend, though, seems to be the equivalent of noticing the klansman in the grocery store and storming out theatrically. That’s incredibly dumb.

Yes, Musk has told the Bad People they can stay (or return), with wider permissions to say Bad Things on his newly acquired platform.

But nobody has to talk with the Bad People or listen to the Bad Things. Everyone’s free to ignore the Bad People, and can even block those Bad People so as to never be forced to notice their Bad Shouting.

Good Person A can get her social media “groceries,” and Bad Person B can get his, without the two ever interacting at all beyond Good Person A noticing Bad Person B’s presence and hitting the “block” link.

So far as I can tell, #leavingtwitter is largely an exercise in performance art — tiresome performance art.

If other people (even Bad People) saying what they want to say (even Bad Things) troubles you that much, especially when you have the power to keep that speech out of your own “hearing,” you’re as much a part of society’s problems as they are.

The cure for bad speech is more speech, not self-imposed exile.

Do as you like, but I’m not #leavingtwitter.

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.

PUBLICATION/CITATION HISTORY