Elon Musk’s ‘free speech’

“[W]hen I have spoken of ‘freedom,’ I have warned people to ask, for whom, to do what, to whom?”[1] Which today brings us to the case of Elon Musk, who calls himself a “free speech absolutist,”[2] buying Twitter.[3]

Musk, we might note, seems to relish conflict. Perhaps the most bizarre example is where he insisted on calling Vernon Unsworth, a diver involved in a cave rescue, a “pedophile.”[4] There was no way Musk could be “right,” no way he could “win,” [5] but he seemingly couldn’t restrain himself:

Even after deleting the tweet about Mr. [Vernon] Unsworth, Mr. [Elon] Musk did not let the dispute go, later telling BuzzFeed News in an email that Mr. Unsworth was a “child rapist,” an assertion offered without evidence. The accusation was based on information from a man he had hired who claimed to be a private investigator and, it turned out, had been convicted of fraud in Britain.[6]

The judge in Unsworth’s defamation lawsuit ruled that the “child rapist” claim was not part of the case,[7] surely an excessively narrow ruling. The obvious conclusion will be that Unsworth failed to win damages, not because Musk was “right,” but because Unsworth really couldn’t afford to pursue a claim against a ludicrously wealthy man. Musk “won” only if you can call a negative victory, that is, the failure of Unsworth to win damages,[8] a “win.”

Musk has taken on bigger fish, just as erratically, just as pointlessly.[9] And now the self-described but not really “free speech absolutist”[10] is buying Twitter[11] in a deal that, by the way, still might fall through,[12] raising concerns that, among other things, he might allow Donald Trump back on the platform[13] and turn Twitter into a haven for threatening speech and hate speech.[14]

“Free speech absolutism” is simply asinine; ‘truth,’ whatever that really is,[15] simply cannot be said to prevail in a “marketplace of ideas” when people die from misinformation.[16] But Musk is tilting at windmills again:

A UK government spokesperson said companies must adhere to the forthcoming online safety bill, which requires platforms to protect users from harmful content, or face the threat of large fines and, for repeat offenders, a total ban. . . .

Thierry Breton, the EU’s commissioner for the internal market, reminded the Tesla chief executive on Tuesday that he would have to comply with the newly agreed Digital Services Act, which requires online platforms to tackle illegal content such as hate speech. . . .

[Elon] Musk responded to the EU and UK announcements on Tuesday, tweeting: “The extreme antibody reaction from those who fear free speech says it all.”[17]


Musk later backed down, incoherently:

[Elon Musk] later showed signs of willingness to adhere to regulations: “By ‘free speech’, 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.”[18]

The trouble here, even dubiously assuming that governments respond to popular pressure,[19] is that rights are not needed to protect the majority from the minority, but rather the reverse. Free speech isn’t free speech if the right to free speech only protects popular opinions or opinions of the powerful; indeed the very point of free speech is to challenge prevailing opinion which otherwise ossifies as dogma.

Which really brings us back to that cave diver’s defamation suit. Musk has “free speech” because he is rich; if he is true to form,[20] that will be the “free speech” that is at stake here.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “On ‘freedom,’” Not Housebroken, August 7, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/09/13/on-freedom/
  2. [2]Russ Mitchell, “‘Free speech absolutist’ Elon Musk has a long history of opposing speech and transparency,” Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2022, https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2022-04-20/news-analysis-what-does-elon-musk-know-about-free-speech-or-transparency-or-truth
  3. [3]Douglas MacMillan et al., “Elon Musk acquires Twitter for roughly $44 billion,” Washington Post, April 25, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2022/04/25/twitter-elon-musk-deal/
  4. [4]Niraj Chokshi and Eric A. Taub, “Elon Musk Is Cleared in Lawsuit Over His ‘Pedo Guy’ Tweet,” New York Times, December 6, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/06/business/elon-musk-defamation-verdict.html; Tim Higgins, “Elon Musk Cleared by Jury in Defamation Case Over ‘Pedo’ Tweet,” Wall Street Journal, December 6, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/elon-musk-cleared-by-jury-in-defamation-case-over-pedo-tweet-11575678498; Alistair Walsh, “Elon Musk won’t stop calling diver a pedophile,” Deutschewelle, September 9, 2018, https://www.dw.com/en/elon-musk-wont-stop-calling-diver-a-pedophile/a-45372611; Li Zhou, “Elon Musk and the Thai cave rescue: a tale of good intentions and bad tweets,” Vox, July 18, 2018, https://www.vox.com/2018/7/18/17576302/elon-musk-thai-cave-rescue-submarine
  5. [5]Although Elon Musk managed to prevail in a defamation suit the diver, Vernon Unsworth, brought against him: Niraj Chokshi and Eric A. Taub, “Elon Musk Is Cleared in Lawsuit Over His ‘Pedo Guy’ Tweet,” New York Times, December 6, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/06/business/elon-musk-defamation-verdict.html
  6. [6]Niraj Chokshi and Eric A. Taub, “Elon Musk Is Cleared in Lawsuit Over His ‘Pedo Guy’ Tweet,” New York Times, December 6, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/06/business/elon-musk-defamation-verdict.html
  7. [7]Niraj Chokshi and Eric A. Taub, “Elon Musk Is Cleared in Lawsuit Over His ‘Pedo Guy’ Tweet,” New York Times, December 6, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/06/business/elon-musk-defamation-verdict.html
  8. [8]Niraj Chokshi and Eric A. Taub, “Elon Musk Is Cleared in Lawsuit Over His ‘Pedo Guy’ Tweet,” New York Times, December 6, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/06/business/elon-musk-defamation-verdict.html; Tim Higgins, “Elon Musk Cleared by Jury in Defamation Case Over ‘Pedo’ Tweet,” Wall Street Journal, December 6, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/elon-musk-cleared-by-jury-in-defamation-case-over-pedo-tweet-11575678498
  9. [9]John C. Coffee, Jr., “How the SEC can be the babysitter Elon Musk needs,” CNN, April 23, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/23/perspectives/tesla-elon-musk-sec/index.html; Tim Higgins, “Elon Musk’s Defiance in the Time of Coronavirus,” Wall Street Journal, March 20, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/elon-musks-defiance-in-the-time-of-coronavirus-11584733458; Russ Mitchell, “‘Free speech absolutist’ Elon Musk has a long history of opposing speech and transparency,” Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2022, https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2022-04-20/news-analysis-what-does-elon-musk-know-about-free-speech-or-transparency-or-truth; Kari Paul, “Elon Musk rails against ‘fascist’ shelter-in-place orders in Tesla earnings call,” Guardian, April 29, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/apr/29/tesla-quarterly-earnings-coronavirus-shares; Faiz Siddiqui, “Tesla’s Elon Musk reopens factory, defying county orders and daring officials to arrest him,” Washington Post, May 11, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/05/11/musk-tesla-factory/; Faiz Siddiqui, “Tesla defied county orders so it could restart production. Days later, workers tested positive for the coronavirus,” Washington Post, June 9, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/06/09/tesla-factory-coronavirus/; Eric Ting, “BART picks a fight with Elon Musk on Twitter over tunnels,” SFGate, May 25, 2019, https://www.sfgate.com/local/article/BART-Elon-Musk-Twitter-tunnel-Bay-Boring-Company-13896393.php
  10. [10]Russ Mitchell, “‘Free speech absolutist’ Elon Musk has a long history of opposing speech and transparency,” Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2022, https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2022-04-20/news-analysis-what-does-elon-musk-know-about-free-speech-or-transparency-or-truth
  11. [11]Douglas MacMillan et al., “Elon Musk acquires Twitter for roughly $44 billion,” Washington Post, April 25, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2022/04/25/twitter-elon-musk-deal/
  12. [12]William D. Cohan, “Elon’s Gamble: Imagining Tesla Stock Judgment Day,” Puck News, April 27, 2022, https://puck.news/elons-gamble-imagining-the-tesla-stock-judgment-day/
  13. [13]Douglas MacMillan et al., “Elon Musk acquires Twitter for roughly $44 billion,” Washington Post, April 25, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2022/04/25/twitter-elon-musk-deal/
  14. [14]Josh Funk, “Twitter abuse victims fear Musk’s plans, but may not quit,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 27, 2022, https://www.inquirer.com/consumer/technology/elon-musk-twitter-free-speech-harassment-misinformation-women-racism-20220427.html
  15. [15]I’m not a post-modernist but post-modernists are right to say that there is no theory of truth that withstands scrutiny. However you understand ‘truth’ in any given context, there is an attack that can be made on the theory of truth you are relying upon. Still, there are theories that are more appropriate and even necessary than others in particular contexts, as Grant Kien recently conceded in “Postmodernism Trumps All: The World Without Facts,” Qualitative Inquiry 27, no. 3-4 (2021): 374-380, doi: 10.1177/1077800420918892
  16. [16]David Benfell, “Free speech, COVID-19, and responsibility,” Not Housebroken, January 28, 2022, https://disunitedstates.org/2022/01/28/free-speech-covid-19-and-responsibility/
  17. [17]Dan Milmo and Mark Sweney, “Twitter takeover: EU and UK warn Elon Musk must comply or face sanctions,” Guardian, April 26, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2022/apr/26/twitter-takeover-jack-dorsey-elon-musk
  18. [18]Dan Milmo and Mark Sweney, “Twitter takeover: EU and UK warn Elon Musk must comply or face sanctions,” Guardian, April 26, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2022/apr/26/twitter-takeover-jack-dorsey-elon-musk
  19. [19]Noam Chomsky, “The U.S. behaves nothing like a democracy,” Salon, August 17, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/08/17/chomsky_the_u_s_behaves_nothing_like_a_democracy/; Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics 12, no. 3 (2014): 564-581, doi: 10.1017/S1537592714001595
  20. [20]Russ Mitchell, “‘Free speech absolutist’ Elon Musk has a long history of opposing speech and transparency,” Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2022, https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2022-04-20/news-analysis-what-does-elon-musk-know-about-free-speech-or-transparency-or-truth

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