How Elon Musk Should Shape Twitter — Sans the Sink

Twitter LogoBelow is my column in the New York Post on the media meltdown over the Musk takeover at Twitter. The column again suggests a way for Musk to make a clean break from the censorship culture and apparatchiks at Twitter: the First Amendment Option.  Musk has already made great progress toward restoring free speech on the platform with the firing of the two chief censors at the company, but the deconstruction of one of the world’s largest censorship systems will be a challenge in the weeks and months ahead.

Here is the column:

News reports last week seemed to start out like a bar joke: The richest man in the world walks in carrying a sink . . .

Of course, it was a joke — a colossal joke. The question is whom the joke is on.

For Elon Musk, the punch line was appropriately delivered on Twitter, the company he’s taking over Friday at an inflated price. Calling himself “Chief Twit,” Musk posted the video with the caption “Entering Twitter HQ — let that sink in!”

For the Musk-phobic, it was as funny as a drive-by shooting. CNN analyst Juliette Kayyem denounced Musk’s taunt as “fundamentally cruel.” After all, when Musk was first reported to be buying the company, employees were so traumatized that leadership had to offer emotional support just to “get through the week.”

The reason is less the fear of Musk bringing bathroom fixtures than free speech into San Francisco headquarters. Twitter has created one of the largest censorship systems in world history — a system widely condemned for a pattern of political bias and viewpoint intolerance.

Outgoing CEO Parag Agrawal is unabashedly hostile to traditional views of free speech. Soon after he took over, he pledged to regulate content and said the company would “focus less on thinking about free speech” because “speech is easy on the Internet. Most people can speak. Where our role is particularly emphasized is who can be heard.”

For employees who are true believers of this censorship scheme, the joke no doubt feels like it’s on them. The censorship skill set may not be quite as much in demand in a Musk-owned firm. While Facebook, Google and other companies are still committed to corporate censorship, Musk has pledged to restore free speech principles to Twitter.

But the joke may still be on Musk if he yields to Twitter’s corporate culture or the mainstream media’s unrelenting pressure. Democratic leaders like Hillary Clinton have turned from private censorship to good old-fashioned state censorship.

Clinton has called on foreign governments to step in and pass laws that would force Twitter to continue to censor opposing views. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recently repeated this call for global censorship at the United Nations to the applause of diplomats and media alike.

Musk may have to yield to such domestic laws, but he can use his platform to inform citizens of those countries they are being censored and controlled in what they are allowed to read.

The most important thing in America is for Musk to hit the ground running at Twitter.

First, he needs to order the preservation of all records. There are well-supported examples of biased censorship, including the burying of The Post’s Hunter Biden laptop story before the election. There are also allegations of back-channel communications from the government to manage a type of censorship-by-surrogate system to evade the First Amendment.

Second, Musk should focus on the First Amendment as a model for Twitter’s content-management policy. It has become a mantra on the left that free-speech objections to social-media censorship are meritless because the First Amendment does not apply to private corporations.

This is a knowingly cynical and senseless argument. The First Amendment has never been the sole and exclusive measure of free speech. It concerns the greatest threat to free speech at the time of the founding. But corporate censorship on communication platforms is an equal, if not greater, threat today to free-speech values.

Musk could call these anti-free-speech advocates’ bluff. Former President Barack Obama flogged this false line at Stanford in April. He started by declaring himself “pretty close to a First Amendment absolutist.” He then called for the censorship of anything he considered “disinformation,” including “lies, conspiracy theories, junk science, quackery, racist tracts and misogynist screeds.”

Like many others on the left, Obama claims to be a free-speech champion but narrowly confines such fealty to government censorship. He emphasized, “The First Amendment is a check on the power of the state. It doesn’t apply to private companies like Facebook or Twitter.”

While the First Amendment does not bind private corporations, there is nothing preventing one — like Twitter — voluntarily assuming such protections for free speech. Even with some adjustments for a private forum, what I call the First Amendment Option would create a default in favor of free speech that doesn’t exist on these platforms.

There’d be narrow exceptions for threatening, unlawful and a few other proscribed categories of speech. Twitter can tap into a long line of First Amendment jurisprudence limiting the scope of such speech regulations. Even with a private company’s greater flexibility, a First Amendment-based policy would establish much better protections for free speech.

In other words, Musk could show up at Twitter with precisely the standard long dismissed by censorship advocates — and then let that sink in.

Jonathan Turley is an attorney and professor at George Washington University Law School.

348 thoughts on “How Elon Musk Should Shape Twitter — Sans the Sink”

  1. Jonathan: We are already seeing what Twitter will look like with Musk at the helm. A lot of unfounded conspiracy theories. Three days after completing the deal Musk responded to a Hilary Clinton tweet blaming the GOP for creating an environment where actors, like David DePape, could act on the years of personal attacks by Donald Trump and others on Speaker Pelosi. Musk had a different take on the hammer attack on Paul Pelosi. Musk tweeted: “There is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye”. He linked his post to a right-wing conspiracy theory site, “Santa Monica Observer”, that claimed DePape did not break-in to the Pelosi house and that Pelosi and DePape were lovers who had met in a bar. It took turning facts into pretzels to come up with this fact-free story! But Musk bought it hook, line and sinker.

    Santa Monica Observer is noted for other conspiracy theories including the claim Hilary Clinton was dead and a body-double stood in to debate Trump in the 2016 debate. And Musk was not the only one peddling the false story about the hammer attack on Pelosi. Newsmax host Greg Kelly suggested that Speaker Pelosi “staged” the attack. The right-wing conspiracy theorists are trying to deflect from the fact that David DePape is a far-right extremist, a follower of QAnon and other white nationalist, racist and anti-semitiic groups. Is Musk’s tweet what you had in mind when you said he would bring “free speech back to Twitter?

    1. Dennis McIntyre – you tin foil hat is on way too tight — the only one pushing that DePape was a far right nut was a far left nut case herself (Hillary). DePape was an extremist left wing nut job – his neighbors, and family all confirmed he was an extremist for the left wing thought control. The only one screaming that he said “Where is Pelosi” was nancy herself, there is no confirmation from the cops (or videos) that mention this garbage – what is kown (the facts) are that DePape was an known gay prostitute (confirmed by the cops), lived in a 100% liberal neighborhood (Berkley), was an illegal from Canada, sold recreational drugs, had serious mental health issues, supported BLM and Antifa – the original story of this house being broken into at 2:00 am does not hold water when the house is surrounded 24/7 by police, security and secret service agents, so DePape was invited in for a little doggie action by Pelosi – ask yourself who was the third person who opened the door for the cops — hey Dennis, just remember, it was the liberals who demanded that all republicans be hunted down and shot – at home, at a restaurant, at bar, as a gas station, you liberals are all mentally deranged

    2. David DePape is an illegal immigrant from Canada who makes marijuana jewelry, nudist, green party member living with a fellow nudist pedophile ex-girfriend who says he’s nuts living in a make-shift commune in Berkeley with Black Lives Matter sign posted out front. The 2 websites with the extremist rants were put up 2 days before the event. Ya just your typical MAGA populist conservative.

    3. It is absurd to draw any conclusion concerning what Musk will or will not allow based on events a few hours after the deal closed or Twitter actions before the deal closed. As Musk himself has said, he will not be making immediate changes until he has his advisory team in place. Efforts like those of Dennis McIntyre to blame Twitter actions on Musk when he had no mechanism to effectuate the action is just the pathetic act of someone trying to claim there is a Musk issue when the timeline makes that impossible.

      Personally I am fine if Musk completely opens up Twitter to all speech. Let the different voices argue back and forth with the facts and logic they can muster and the truth will always surface. It is like good science – different scientists have different hypotheses they put forward with their supporting evidence then the hypotheses are tested with observational and experimental facts and with logic, the hypotheses proven false are rejected and those consistent with the fact have a tentative (truth is always tentative in science. . .and politics. .. . Never “Settled”). Indeed the sick attempt by government scientists to suppress the publication of data inconsistent with their Anthropogenic Global Warming fiasco hypotheses or their false assessments of the origins of the Corona virus, the effectiveness of masks or the efficacy and safety and relevance of vaccines in young populations is an embarrassment to Climate Science, Vaccine Science and the CDC that will take decades to live down.

    4. Lol, you leftists are so low IQ. Musk was trolling Clinton with that tweet. Satire/parody/humor/trolling is making a comeback at Twitter with Musk at the helm. And you idiots can’t take it, you just go apoplectic as a first reaction. Time for you people to stop being fascist Karens and mind your own business.

    5. Just scanning Dennis McIntyre’s post. It’s very clear that he gets his selective information from left-wing news sites and sources, then (mostly) rewords them in his verbose posts (to avoid charges of plagiarism?), -particularly as in his last paragraph (above). Perhaps he should note that the Santa Monica Observer responded to snarky tweets by posting this, in part:
      “We are not especially right wing, and do not post conspiracy theory, except as satire. An example is the 2016 ‘Hillary is Dead’ story, which was posted as satire, then removed when people complained. @latimes.” › SMObserved › status › 1586810675015229440
      Amusing that Dennis did not mention/note this in his post.

      1. Love it….a thorough house cleaning is needed and should include all those who were complicit.

    6. Free speech means free speech. A person should be able to say/write whatever they want.

      People can choose to agree, disagree, or decide they are unsure and want to learn more about the subject/statement.

      You can’t have a person or government deciding who can be heard and who can’t. Any reasonable person knows that it is absurd.

      No two people are the same. You expect people to believe others that have opposing beliefs on extremely polarizing subjects are going to report and relay information that goes against their tgoughts, beliefs or OPINIONS??

      What planet do you live on? The MSM and those on the left were allowed to drown the country with things like Russia gate, pee tape, Russian asset, Hunters laptop being Russian disinformation etc. For years!!

      All of which have been proven to be lies. Complete B.S.

      And let’s just say for example a year or two down the road it turns out there was massive voter fraud in the 2020 election. Then what?

      You are either naive, ignorant or a shameless fraud. My money is on the latter.

    7. And yet it turns out that the perp was a homeless, mentally ill, illegal alien living in a bus with BLM and Antifa posters all around – in other words, a leftist. Magically, a site purporting to be his blog popped up with back dated content appearing to be deranged Q-Anon content – but there’s no evidence he had anything to do with it.

      Conspiracy theories, indeed. The left has been pushing such hoaxes continuously for 7 years now. Enough is enough.

  2. There’s the First Amendment and its predecessor, the Culture of Free Speech. Both protect us from the government, but only the latter has protected us over the centuries from the private tyrants who would leave us ignorant and dependent. As the great tragedian, Euripides, wrote long before James Madison was even a possibility, “This is slavery, not to speak one’s thought.”

    Both are important and need to be preserved.

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