Elon Musk Is a Free Speech Absolutist: Should We All Be?

Should hate speech and similar forms of expression be included within actions undoubtedly worthy of criminalisation?

Tech and Auto
5 min read
Elon Musk Is a Free Speech Absolutist: Should We All Be?

One of the founding fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin, famously said, "Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Indeed, free speech is a major characteristic of "essential liberty," but what constitutes free speech is a debate that has been reignited thanks to billionaire Elon Musk's acquisition of Twitter.

Musk claims to be a free speech absolutist, and his stance on free speech has sparked concerns about the magnitude of misinformation and hate speech that could be in circulation on the platform as a result of the takeover.

"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," Musk had asserted in his statement announcing the acquisition deal.

The philosophical debate around free speech is not a new one, but what are the arguments on either side of the debate's spectrum?

What do the absolutists believe and what are the arguments of those who believe in reasonable restrictions on what somebody can say?


The Debate Around Free Speech

The most intense disagreement regarding free speech revolves around the question, how free should speech be?

Liberal democracies tend to have laws that have clear limitations on "hate speech," that is, any form of expression that is prejudiced against and threatening towards a particular community.

The idea is that certain actions need to be criminalised in order to prevent others from being harmed, which has been famously put forward by John Stuart Mill in his theory regarding the harm principle:

"...the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."

That certain actions of some people need to be prevented by those in power in order to prevent harm to others is not disputed.

That is why countries have laws, a constitution, and a penal code among many other elements of jurisprudence.

What is disputed is: should "hate speech" or any form of expression (like racist posters or films) be included within those certain actions that are worthy of criminalisation by the state, even if they are not directly harming anyone?

The Absolutist Perspective

There is a famous example from Skokie, Illinois. In 1977, the National Socialist Party of America organised a Nazi march in a predominantly Jewish community.

They did not engage in "hate speech" per se, but dressed up in Sturmabteilung (one of Nazi Germany's paramilitary wings) uniforms, wearing swastikas.

The digital equivalence of this will be the NSAP posting pictures of themselves in that attire on Twitter without tweeting anything, but we are not discussing the digital world at the moment. We are talking purely in principle.

The argument to disallow the aforementioned march was that there was a high risk of a riot breaking out.

But that would mean that the violence would first come from the Jewish side, albeit due to deliberate provocation by the NSAP, and the first people to be harmed would be the Nazi marchers.

This is similar to what the absolutists argue.

They say that not only should speech (whatever it may be) that does not cause harm not be restricted, but they also argue that if some limits to free speech are accepted because it is "offensive," it will create a precedent for other petitions against all sorts of speech.

That would, in totality, lead to a huge loss of freedom.

Additionally, free speech advocates like Alexander Meiklejohn argue that only unhindered expression of politically significant opinions and ideas can ensure intelligent self-government and democracy. They do, however, also emphasise the word "politically".

The right to be offensive, they say, is essential to a healthy democracy because diverging opinions lead to conflict, which leads to progress.

As clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson said in his viral interview with Channel 4 News journalist Cathy Newman, "In order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive."

For absolutists, the way to oppose "offensive" speech is to counter it with your own "offensive" speech.


Opponents of Absolutism in Free Speech

On the other hand, critics of the absolutist approach argue that the risk of harm posed by hate speech is just too high to ignore.

They say that competing social interests should be weighed and that every individual has the right to be protected from not just physical harm and the threat of the same, but also obscenity and religio-cultural provocations.

With respect to the physical harm aspect, Mill has a well-known example of a corn dealer, using which he notes the difference between legitimate harm and illegitimate harm.

If there is a corn dealer whose actions have led to poor people being starved to death, then expressing this view in a newspaper or a report is fine, according to him.

But to reveal the same to an angry mob stationed outside the house of the corn dealer could lead to a lynching, an act that violates the law of the land.

The corn dealer's right to life, and his right to safety, are both in danger if the mob is fed information (whether true or false) about him and the starving, and this, therefore, does not constitute free speech.

The arguments against free speech consisting of religio-cultural provocations claim that an attack on someone's dignity is no less than a threat of physical abuse.

So, in the case of the Nazi march in Illinois, philosopher Jeremy Waldron would say that the march should be restricted because even the visual impact of hate speech via swastikas, posters, or Sturmabteilung uniforms would compromise the dignity of the Jewish community and make their lives worse, thereby compromising the premise of a liberal and democratic society in which everyone should be made to feel equal and belonged.

But, again, absolutists would say that any random action could be perceived as compromising dignity. Where should the threshold lie?

Opponents to absolutism in free speech also argue that certain types of speech are anyway not protected by the law, albeit in a different manner.

For example, there are laws to prevent fraud via false advertising. There also exist constitutional provisions against acts like defamation or blackmail.


A History of Free Speech

Let's start with Socrates, the Greek philosopher considered to be the founder of western political thought.

The man was sentenced to death in 399 BC for impiety (not acknowledging the gods that the city does) and for "corrupting" the young minds of Athens.

During his trial, he told the jury, "If you offered to let me off this time on condition I am not any longer to speak my mind... I should say to you, "Men of Athens, I shall obey the Gods rather than you."'

The jury wasn't impressed, and his death sentence was carried out. But this is how far back the idea of free speech goes.

Fast forward by 2188 years, we have the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the pivotal document drafted by the National Constituent Assembly after the French Revolution of 1789.

Article XI reads, "The free communication of thoughts and of opinions is one of the most precious rights of man: any citizen thus may speak, write, print freely, except to respond to the abuse of this liberty, in the cases determined by the law."

Even Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

Therefore, the history of free speech and the debate around it goes back centuries. The fact that a billionaire's acquisition of a microblogging app has brought this conversation into the headlines tells us about the indispensability of free speech to democracy.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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