A campaign is currently underway by left-wing organizations and politicians to demand that Twitter, now owned by Elon Musk, continue its practice of censoring hate speech and other “objectionable” postings.
A letter sent to Twitter’s top 20 advertisers, signed by 40 activist organizations, including the NAACP, the Center for American Progress, GLAAD and the Global Project Against Hate and extremism, contained the following veiled threat:
“We, the undersigned organizations call on you to notify Musk and publicly commit that you will cease all advertising on Twitter globally if he follows through on his plans to undermine brand safety and community standards, including gutting content moderation.”
This means that Musk must not roll back what Twitter has on the books now, and commit to enforcing the existing rules. In other words, Twitter advertisers have been asked to boycott Twitter unless it continues to censor.
Decades ago, during the height of McCarthyism, it was the hard right that demanded censorship, while the left insisted that the marketplace of ideas should be left open to all forms of speech.
As Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1801:
“[W]e have nothing to fear from the demoralizing of some if others are left free to demonstrate their errors, and especially the law stands ready to punish the first criminal act produced by false reasoning. These are safer correctives than the conscience of a judge.”
Jefferson’s distrust of “the conscience of a judge” would probably be even greater if the censors were the CEOs of companies that rely on advertisers for their profits.
At a time of growing division, hostility and violence, it is understandable to look to censorship as the easy solution to a difficult problem. But censorship requires censors, and once censors are given the ability to pick and choose what the public will hear, this slippery slope moves us away from freedom and toward repression.
I certainly do not like the kind of anti-Semitic hate speech that is pervasive on many of today’s internet platforms and I am the recipient of these emails and tweets on an almost daily basis. Free speech is not free. The old expression that “sticks and stone may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” is false. Names hurt me, my family and others. But that is not the issue. The issue is whether in an open society we must endure these pains in order to avoid being in even great pains of selective censorship.
The Framers of the First Amendment chose to endure the pain of too much speech over the dangers of speech controlled by the government. But Twitter is not the government. Neither is Facebook or YouTube. They are giant media companies that dominate and control the flow of speech throughout the world. And the dangers of putting control of those flows in the hands of invisible elitist censors threatens to undercut our most important freedom.
This is the most important free speech issue that will be faced during the remainder of the 21st century: whether to tolerate untrammeled and sometimes even dangerous freedom of speech or to demand private censorship of the kind that the government could not impose.
Some have proposed that we treat giant social media companies like “common carriers,” such as railroads and telegraph companies. But under the First Amendment, placing controls over public speech is different from regulating travel and even personal telegraph communications.
One manifestation of the divisiveness of our nation is that complex issues of this kind are rarely debated dispassionately and intelligently. Instead, people are forced to choose sides: are you for Musk or against him? Are you for controls on internet speech or against it? The first casualty of divisive extremism is nuance. And it is nuance that is sorely needed with regard to this issue of internet censorship.
Let nuanced proposals be offered and discussed. Let us not rush to judgment about so important and complex issues.
And most important, let free speech not become weaponized as a partisan issue.