–“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”
These are the words of Tesla chief and self-proclaimed free-speech advocate Elon Musk, said as he celebrated his recent Twitter takeover in a $44 billion all-cash deal.
Prior to buying Twitter, Musk had labelled himself as a “free speech absolutist” as he announced that SpaceX satellite internet service Starlink would keep Russian news sources online, despite pressure from un-named governments (not Ukraine) – “unless at gunpoint.”
Musk has been calling himself a First Amendment and free speech advocate for years (such as when defending himself in a defamation lawsuit after referring to a critic as a “pedo guy” and while arguing that the US Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) had infringed on his rights).
But how much of a “free speech absolutist” is Musk really?
While Musk’s tweets and vociferous defence of his right to make them may suggest Musk really, deeply cares for free speech, his treatment of his employees, critics and even customers may point towards a different story.
In an article for The Atlantic, Maria Karen wrote:
“He might like to be able to say anything he wants, but he bristles when what others want to say goes against his own preferences. He will grace his fans with engagement, but he has little interest in critics. And he has not always shown himself to be someone who welcomes people speaking their mind, especially not at his own companies.”
Tesla’s Purported Treatment of Employees
A perusal of media reports indicates that Musk’s Tesla has, while laying off employees, asked them to sign separation agreements including a strong non-disparagement clause with no end-date. But that’s not it. The company also seems to have a history of removing employees for sounding unwanted alarms on consequential matters.
Further, according to CNBC, in 2018, a former Tesla security employee filed a complaint with the US SEC saying he was wrongfully terminated from his job as an investigator at the company’s battery plant in Sparks, Nevada, after sounding the alarm about the theft of tens of millions of dollars’ worth of raw materials there.
In 2020, as well, a former Tesla employee said he was fired from his job after raising safety concerns internally then filing formal complaints with government offices, when the company failed to fix and communicate accurately with customers over what, as per him, were unacceptable fire risks in the company’s solar installations.
Meanwhile, according to The Atlantic, some Tesla employees have said that the company ignored or tried to silence them when they alleged racial harassment and discrimination at workplace. Tesla has, however, denied any wrongdoing.
The Atlantic also cited Tim Higgins, a reporter and the author of a book on Tesla, as saying that Musk reportedly fired employees who disagreed with him.
And What About Critics?
Musk is reported to have once criticised analysts during a Tesla earnings call for their line of questioning, saying that “boring, bonehead questions are not cool.”
According to CNBC, he has also asked reporters to sign NDAs or show story drafts to the company for approvals before publishing.
Tesla is further said to have stopped inviting some staff members of Electrek (an electric vehicle blog) after they published a story titled “Tesla is charging owners $1,500 for hardware they already paid for” to company events.
In China, Tesla sued a social media influencer for defamation, after he posted a video demonstrating purported issues with Tesla, as well as another automaker's emergency braking systems.
Requests for Confidential Treatment
According to media reports, Tesla and Musk’s legal representatives have repeatedly filed requests for confidential treatment in legal and business filings in the US. This includes attempts to keep from the public:
Tesla’s purported attempt to keep vehicle safety information (that federal auto regulators sought from the company as a routine investigative practice)
Business information used by Tesla to apply for tax subsidies from the California Alternative Energy and Advanced Transportation Financing Authority
But At Least Customers Have Freedom of Speech, Right?
In a stark contradiction to Musk’s stand on freedom of speech, Musk and Tesla’s attempts to curb flak do not appear to have even spared customers.
According to CNBC, Tesla used to make customers sign agreements containing non-disclosure clauses as a prerequisite to have their vehicles repaired. In 2021, the company also asked customers to not make any critical posts on social media about FSD Beta — an experimental driver assistance software package that some Tesla owners could test out on their own cars.
Tesla’s terms for access to FSD Beta were however subsequently lifted with Musk saying that no one was obeying them anyway. However, the practice reportedly led to a probe by the federal vehicle safety authority.
In a letter to Tesla, the authority, pointed out that “any agreement that may prevent or dissuade participants in the early access beta release program from reporting safety concerns to NHTSA is unacceptable.”
In China, Tesla has reportedly gone so far as to sue customers who have complained about safety issues with their vehicles.
Thus, when the Tesla chief, who is now Twitter’s new owner, says “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means,” it remains to be seen if he really means it.
(With inputs from The Atlantic and CNBC.)