Elon Musk is proposing to acquire Twitter for $48 billion. Can the richest man in the world pull off such a daunting gambit? Perhaps. He will need to convince the world, his stakeholders and financial regulators that he will honestly protect the right of free speech, which has become a sizzling hot topic with the growth and power of a few tech companies. Musk says he will be the guardian of free speech if he is successful.
There is no absolute agreement about the meaning and power of free speech. If you asked five intelligent, well-read people what free speech means to them, you would likely receive many different responses.
When discussing free speech, hardliners say that a person should be able to express his or her opinion in words and/or actions without any censorship or regulation by government, corporations, parents, teachers, police or neighbors. Of course, there are some practical limitations. Language and actions that lead to violence are generally excluded from free speech protection. This aspect of the issue results in great disagreement in public forums.
Does Twitter and the other companies that foster social media have a responsibility and the right to restrict commentary on their website? If editors at Twitter believe Donald Trump is a menace to society, is it their prerogative to ban his tweets?
Twitter may feel that Trump’s rhetoric, or anything related to the former president, is harmful to society. Should the company have the power to ban any commentary by him or reporting by others. Should Twitter be able to do this legally?
Free speech advocates often say that any expression of opinion is fair game, and Trump should not be censored. If any despicable rhetoric is censored, it is a chip off the pillar of freedom of speech. Frankly, the two sides on this issue are at loggerheads.
When it comes to government intervention with extreme opponents, or those with a more tolerant perception of free speech, the controversy always becomes more vitriolic. The current state of affairs is really mixed depending upon the issues involved. For instance, supporters and opponents relating to “protest” are always in violent disagreement. On college campuses, protests of radical perspectives have frequently led to violence, yet the perpetrators of the action believe they should have the protection of freedom of speech.
Historically, even the vilest organizations such as neo-Nazi groups have been given leeway to march and offer their opinions. Many free speech advocates believe that every group has a right to speak and organize, and if any are not allowed to express themselves, we might as well rip up the Constitution.
Elon Musk resents the influence Twitter has and wants to restructure the company so that it does not censor anyone, even if rhetoric is harsh and objectionable. He seems to think that he is the person most able to manage the right of free speech in our country. Many may laud Musk’s desire to protect free speech, but will resist a situation where Musk is making decisions for the country.
The concept of free speech is much larger than any one company or one individual. And, shouldn’t Congress and SCOTUS be the groups that make and interpret free speech law? We are at a dangerous moment in history. Should the US allow corporations and their management to make free speech rules for us, or not?