Elon Musk’s lamentable reversal on his own free speech agenda

Elon Musk
Elon Musk. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Elon Musk’s lamentable reversal on his own free speech agenda

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Breaching a prior commitment not to do so, Tesla/Twitter CEO Elon Musk has banned a Twitter account which tracked his private jet. He is also threatening a hopeless legal action against the account’s creator. Musk is thus showing hypocrisy on a matter supposedly dear to his heart: free speech.

Musk’s ban is regrettable. It significantly undermines his credibility as a powerful agent for a more traditional notion of free speech in America.

Musk’s disclosures since taking over Twitter have been healthy, unveiling both the overt and implicit bias of key Twitter officials in alignment with the Democratic Party and sympathetic media outlets. This is not good for the media, the public or the nation. Musk’s expansive notion of free speech (at least until this week), which tolerates even speech that is divisive or has little factual basis, is also praiseworthy. To understand why, consider why the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in the controversial 2011 case of Synder v Phelps. That case saw members of a fringe church protest on the periphery of a solder’s funeral. The protesters’ conduct was deeply hurtful to many. But as Chief Justice John Roberts noted in the court’s opinion:

“Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a nation we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

Roberts and the court were correct — provably so, in the context of current cultural debates such as those involving sexual education and transgender identity. Wherever one stands on those issues, there is little doubt that a the media, academia and entertainment have sought to silence contravening viewpoints on the basis that they are supposedly hurtful. This is antithetical to the nation’s exceptional tradition of vigorous free discourse. Put simply, the offense — and, short of criminality, even fear — taken by some at the speech of others cannot become an excuse to restrict public debate on matters of public importance.


In banning the flight tracking account, Musk has inadvertently given a near pitch-perfect example of why an expansive approach to free speech is in the public interest. The CEO’s complaint is that public awareness of his private jet’s movements was undermining his family’s safety. He pointed to a specific example, involving an unfortunate incident where someone apparently followed his young child in Los Angeles.

Musk did not, however, show how the tracking of his movements led to the incident. More importantly, he ignores the basic fact that freely available flight tracking websites are a key tool of researchers, journalists and activists. These tracking tools have been heavily used by researchers, for example, to track Russian oligarchs and other corrupt interests. They are used by journalists such as myself to monitor military and political activity of public interest. Would he have these opportunities disappear? At the most basic level, these websites facilitate the pursuit of happiness by flight enthusiasts! The basic point is that monitoring flights does not, per se, endanger anyone’s safety. But this monitoring provides significant public interest benefits.

Moreover, Musk has the resources to use multiple private jets, including decoy jets, should he wish to frustrate the efforts of those attempting to monitor him. He could also sign up for an executive private jet rental service under which he would be much harder to trace. Only an exceptionally well-organized, heavily resourced state-level entity would have the means of launching an attack against Musk’s family where it had only a very time limited window of knowledge as to his movements. For a lone individual or terrorist group to pull off such an attack would be nearly unprecedented in the U.S. Indeed, attempts to plan such an action would almost certainly trigger the attention of the FBI.

Beyond this, the threat to Musk is likely the same as it has always been: that of a lone individual opportunist with an obsession. As seen in the Los Angeles incident, that threat is real and outrageous. But it can also be limited without the public suffering a significant loss to their speech and debate.

Musk’s ban, then, represents a significant overreaction which damages Twitter’s commitment to free speech and the more important free speech philosophy Musk has admirably adopted. The CEO has opened himself up to two legitimate criticisms: first, that he is a hypocrite, and second, that at the margin, he will use Twitter to serve his own interests rather than to facilitate the public interest. He has used his great power to protect his own interests at the expense of the public interest: a key concern of the Founders when they sculpted the Constitution.

Musk should really reconsider his stance.


© 2022 Washington Examiner

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