What Elon Musk vs the BBC reveals about free speech

BASEDPolitics’ Brad Polumbo was featured in a Fox News story Thursday expressing his disappointment with Elon Musk betraying his “free speech absolutist” principles, citing the new Twitter owner’s use of censorship on more than one occasion.

I agree with Brad. I never expected perfection, yet if the entire point of Musk buying Twitter was to not only allow true free speech, but also to remind everyone of what it looked like, that hasn’t quite worked out. But this column is not about that.

In the now famous and entertaining clip of Musk being interviewed by a BBC reporter, hilarity ensues when the reporter accuses Twitter of allowing “hateful things.” Then, Musk begs him to give an example of just one hateful thing he’s seen on Twitter and the reporter can’t do it. He looks foolish.

Score one for Musk.

But the subtext to the exchange also gives shape to the current debate over free speech.

Musk asked reporter James Clayton to describe what he considers “hateful content.”

Clayton replied, “Content that will solicit a reaction. Something that may include something that is slightly racist or slightly sexist. Those kinds of things.”

Musk asked, “So you think if something is slightly sexist, it should be banned?”

“No,” Clayton replied. “I’m not saying anything.”

And as far as we know, Clayton wasn’t saying anything. Let’s not speculate about Clayton’s politics or anything else unknown.

Just what he asked. Again: “Content that will solicit a reaction. Something that may include something that is slightly racist or slightly sexist. Those kinds of things.”

The old understanding of free speech in the United States was that the entire purpose of the free speech provisions in the First Amendment was precisely to protect speech that was not just “slightly” racist or sexist, but the protection of speech that was extremely racist, sexist, and about any other ist or ism you can imagine.

The protection of vile speech.

The most memorable popular example for Americans of a certain age was the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) defending the right of Nazis to march through the Jewish-heavy suburb of Skokie, Illinois in 1978. In fact, defending such speech was considered left-wing back then.

Knowing this old definition and history, Musk was right to question if the reporter thought content that is slightly racist or sexist should be banned. Because unfortunately, that’s exactly where the free speech debate is today.

Musk bought Twitter precisely to allow the old version of free speech. Many on the Left and elsewhere now believe that major social media platforms should censor not only extremist views but many political views the establishment class disagrees with.

The polling bears this out. Independent journalist and old-school liberal Glenn Greenwald keeps this poll graphic pinned to the top of his Twitter account.

In simpler terms: Musk bought Twitter to reinstitute free speech. Brad, myself, and others are disappointed he hasn’t always done this uniformly.

But Musk’s critics are angry that he would even think of allowing free speech! That’s the reason for their outrage. That is the likely subtext to the reporter’s question, and that’s as far as I’m willing to speculate. It sounds like that is the question he thinks his viewers need an answer to.

How dare Musk allow this?

But let’s take this a step further: I’m sure many have seen Musk referred to as a ‘white nationalist’ after his Twitter buyout. I’m sure many, and certainly me, were wondering ‘what the hell is wrong with these people? Musk allowing free speech makes him a Nazi?’

For his critics, yes.

Merely allowing extreme speech makes Musk responsible for it and in the minds of many leftists, apparently, merely permitting the speech is a de facto endorsement of it.

I know, it took me a minute to figure out this nuttery, too.

By this new Left ‘logic,’ the ACLU in 1978 were white nationalists because they fought for the free speech rights of white nationalists. But virtually no one believed back then that the Jewish lawyers became Nazis themselves merely for defending the principle of free expression. Even for the ACLU’s critics, and there were many, this was still the broad American understanding of what free speech was.

That broad understanding doesn’t exist anymore. In fact, many people outright reject and denounce it.

The Musk-BBC exchange is but another reminder.

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Jack Hunter
Jack Hunterhttp://LibertyTree.com
Jack Hunter is a freelance writer, the co-author of Sen. Rand Paul’s 2011 book ‘The Tea Party Goes to Washington’ and the former politics editor for Rare.us.