(Todd A. Smith)
It is perplexing how few people, like new and soon-to-be former Twitter CEO Elon Musk and many conservative political pundits, understand the First Amendment and its guarantee of free speech.
When social media companies block certain users, people falsely claim their free speech has been violated.
When media outlets complain that certain stories are not receiving adequate coverage, many falsely claim that their free speech has been violated.
But all free speech means is that, with a few exceptions, the government cannot imprison a person for expressing their views and thoughts.
People must realize free speech comes with limitations such as perjury, defamation, etc.
Most importantly, the same people must realize that freedom of speech applies to the government.
Individuals do not have to allow you to speak freely with impunity.
And companies do not have to allow you to speak freely with impunity.
Companies and individuals can have rules too.
Not allowing them to have their own rules would restrict their right to free speech.
So, whose free speech rights are most important?
The person or people making the decisions have more of a right to free speech than others.
Simply put, your rights end where my rights begin.
Musk bought Twitter supposedly because he saw the social media platform as a beacon of free speech.
His vision of Twitter will make the social media app a virtual town square where ideas can flow freely, and nothing is off limits.
Honestly, the town square philosophy is what this country is built upon so there is nothing wrong with taking the concept online.
What is wrong about Musk’s idea of an online town square is that even in the town square, people cannot just say what they want and get away with it.
For instance, a person cannot threaten another with violence just because they are in the town square.
The person in the town square cannot incite violence or a riot either.
Doing those things are not protected by the First Amendment.
Musk calls himself a free speech absolutist.
However, there is no free speech absolution in the town square or anywhere else in America.
There have always been the same exceptions to free speech before the Internet and after the Internet.
Musk might have indeed thought he was a free speech absolutist.
Unfortunately for him, the framers of the Constitution did not see free speech the same as he allegedly did at one point.
Furthermore, Musk temporarily banning journalists and celebrities for saying mean things about him or putting out information that he did not want out proves that he only supports free speech when the person is preaching Musk’s sermon.
The Associated Press reported, “Twitter on Thursday suspended the accounts of journalists who cover the social media platform and its new owner Elon Musk, among them reporters working for The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, Voice of America and other publications.
“The company hasn’t explained to the journalists why it took down the accounts and made their profiles and past tweets disappear. But Musk took to Twitter on Thursday night to accuse journalists of sharing private information about his whereabouts that he described as ‘basically assassination coordinates.’ He provided no evidence for that claim.”
Musk owes no one an explanation as to why he banned the journalists, temporarily, from Twitter.
He owns the company.
Therefore, he can do what he wants because the First Amendment applies to him and Twitter like it does for every American and American-based company.
But do not call yourself a free speech absolutist and criticize Twitter in the past for banning accounts from people like former President Donald Trump for violating rules, then do the same thing to other people.
That type of attitude shows he is less interested in free speech than he is in using Twitter to bend the country to his political viewpoint.
How can one support a person’s First Amendment rights when they incite violence, attempt to overthrow American democracy or express hatred and not support it when people make fake Musk Twitter accounts or say something negative about the Tesla CEO?
Musk’s action is reminiscent of the child who is made fun of at the park and takes his ball home in protest.
Be nice to me or no one gets to play and have fun.
Additionally, if Musk truly supported free speech, he would know what role journalism plays in the First Amendment.
One of the keys to maintaining a democracy is a free press, which is guaranteed in the First Amendment.
I often say that journalism is the fourth branch of government because we hold politicians and civic leaders accountable.
Democracies have a free press.
Autocracies have state run media.
As much as Twitter might have gotten the Hunter Biden laptop issue incorrectly, as a media company, or any company for that matter, they decide which stories they amplify, not politicians or political pundits.
If Twitter did not want to amplify the Biden story for whatever reason, wrong or right, that was their call to make.
Criticism is warranted.
But it is not a First Amendment issue.
If the government made them amplify that story, that would be a free speech infringement, not the other way around.
When many conservative media outlets decided not to air the Jan. 6 committee hearings live, it was poor journalism.
However, free speech allows them to run whatever story they want when they want.
Criticize them 24/7 for those poor decisions.
However, do not confuse poor journalism with violating free speech.