Twitter’s Next Owner Elon Musk Offers His Definition of “Freedom of Speech”

Oric Lawson | Photo by Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Elon Musk has claimed that he is buying Twitter in order to protect freedom of expression. But what does “freedom of expression” mean? Musk gave a somewhat vague answer in A Tweet on Tuesdayafter one day make a deal to buy Twitter for $44 billion. (Sale to Musk is pending and needs shareholder approval to complete.)

Musk’s statement, made via a pinned tweet on his Twitter profile, read:

By “freedom of speech,” I simply mean what complies with the law. I am against censorship that goes beyond the law.

If people want less freedom of speech, they will ask the government to pass laws for this. Therefore, transgressing the law goes against the will of the people.

Twitter has the right to the First Amendment to moderate tweets

There are multiple ways to interpret Musk’s statement as it relates to US law, particularly the First Amendment. One explanation is that Musk doesn’t need to change Twitter at all to prevent “censorship beyond the law.”

The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law … limiting freedom of speech or freedom of the press; or the right of the people to assemble peacefully, and to petition the Government for redress of grievances.” The wording prevents the government from restricting freedom of expression, but the courts have ruled that it does not prevent private companies from doing so.

In fact, judges have ruled that private companies like Twitter have a First Amendment right to edit content. Both Florida And Texas He tried to enact laws that would force social networks like Twitter and Facebook to reduce moderation of content. Judges banned Both state laws into effectgiven that the laws violate the First Amendment rights of companies to modify their platforms.

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Freedom of expression laws vary widely by country

In this sense, moderating Twitter content – including restricting tweets and banning certain accounts – “actually complies with the law” on freedom of expression in the United States. But Musk clearly believes that editing Twitter content is often a violation of free speech. His statement that freedom of expression on Twitter must “conform with the law” may therefore mean that he believes that Twitter – like the US Congress – should not enforce rules and policies that Musk considers “censorship”.

US law does not say that Twitter should avoid such rules and policies, so it appears that Musk wants freedom of expression that goes beyond what US law requires. Musk can achieve his goal by changing Twitter’s policies on prohibited types of content and by changing the algorithms Twitter uses to promote or limit the appearance of certain Tweets.

Of course, free speech laws vary by state, with the United States notorious for not having many government restrictions on people who speak their minds. Twitter faces different laws around the world – China bans Twitter, for example. In Europe, Twitter will face a A new set of rules To modify illegal and harmful content.

Musk’s statement that “if people want less freedom of speech, they will ask the government to pass laws to that effect” does not match the reality of countries with significant restrictions on free speech. Repressive governments that generally restrict freedom of expression do not do so because the people they rule “ask[ed] The government to pass laws for this. Examples include China’s comprehensive Internet censorship system And Russia’s crackdown on news coverage Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

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Musk recently suggested that he would challenge governments that demand speech restrictions, writing that “Some governments (not Ukraine) have asked Starlink to block Russian news sources. We will only do so at gunpoint. Sorry for being a free speech guru.”

But Musk’s new statement defining freedom of expression as “compliant with the law” points to a different approach in which he is willing to restrict speech in any country the government requires him to do so. Using Musk’s interpretation of free speech, a government law that prohibits certain types of speech is merely “the will of the people.”

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