Freedom of speech is so important to us as Americans our founders made it one of our most foundational liberties.
According to the First Amendment,
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”
But should all speech be permitted? Is that the American way?
What if someone spreads defamatory lies about you, claiming that you were responsible for the spread of COVID in your community, giving out your home address, posting pictures of your children, calling for violence against you and your family, and instructing people how to burn down your house? Should that speech be permitted in the public square?
What kind of speech should be allowed on social media? All speech of all kinds?
The hysterical reaction of many on the left to Elon Musk’s pending purchase of Twitter reveals the degree to which free speech is a one-way street for them. To paraphrase their words, We can speak freely, since we are enlightened truth-tellers. But ignorant haters like you must be silenced!
As I wrote recently with reference to the campuses of America, it is free speech for me but not for thee.
Yet as far as ensuring that social media platforms are free and fair to all, an editorial in the Chicago Tribune was correct in stating that when it comes to Elon Musk heralding free speech on Twitter, “He’ll find the devil is in the details.”
That has proven to be absolutely true, but not in a way that is unique to Musk or Twitter at all. Instead, these are the perennial legal questions that are constantly addressed by the courts.
For example, the Freedom Forum Institute asks the question, “Which types of speech are not protected by the First Amendment?”
Their answer is that, “Although different scholars view unprotected speech in different ways, there are basically nine categories.”
These nine categories are: Obscenity; Fighting words; Defamation (including libel and slander); Child pornography; Perjury; Blackmail; Incitement to imminent lawless action; True threats; Solicitations to commit crimes.” (For further details, see here and here.)
Obviously, each of these categories requires further definition and description. But the simple point is this: freedom of speech does not mean that all speech of all kinds is protected under the First Amendment. Very few of us are advocating for that.
But we do believe that the vast majority of speech should be permitted and, more importantly, that the playing field should be level and the rules be the same for everyone.
That is what matters most, and that is where Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms have failed the most miserably. The playing field has been anything but equal and everyone has not been allowed to play by the same rules. (For detailed documentation, see my book The Silencing of the Lambs.)
Seriously now, when you can get banned from Twitter for stating a biological fact (such as, “Richard ‘Rachel’ Levine is a biological male”), something is terribly amiss.
Or when, as a professional psychologist, you permanently lose your YouTube channel for sharing peer-reviewed documentation about homosexual men whose same-sex attractions were lessened through trauma therapy, something is very wrong. (For the record, the respected psychologist in question, Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, Jr., was banned for hate speech.)
And it is here that, as far as I can tell, Elon Musk has this correct. He wants neutrality and he wants fairness under the law, as he tweeted on April 26:
By “free speech”, I simply mean that which matches the law.
I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.
If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect.
Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 26, 2022
So, should Holocaust deniers and inciters to violence be allowed on Twitter? If their speech is protected under the First Amendment, yes. If not, no.
If it is considered legal by the courts, meaning, these people could circulate their views in newspapers or books or pamphlets, then they should be able to circulate those same views online. If their speech is illegal, then it should not be allowed on online platforms.
Of course, there will always be gray areas, and it will be impossible for perfect neutrality to be maintained, given human nature. And decisions will be made to err in one direction or another (too much freedom or too little freedom). And any individual platform should be able to dictate what it chooses to ban. (For example, my ministry chooses to ban profanity on all our social media platforms.)
But when it comes to social media platforms claiming neutrality and presenting equal guidelines for all, things have gotten drastically out of whack.
In that light, it shouldn’t be hard to reverse Twitter’s steady, at times radical, shift towards the left. And, as Musk is navigating these muddy waters himself, his simple dictum has lots of truth: “Is someone you don’t like allowed to say something you don’t like? If that is the case, then we have free speech.”
Let the real debates begin.
Dr. Michael Brown (www.askdrbrown.org) is the host of the nationally syndicated Line of Fire radio program. He holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from New York University and has served as a professor at a number of seminaries and is the author of 40 books. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.