What’s Left: Kanye, Elon Musk and the Cost of Free Speech

LJ Coady, Staff Writer

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution establishes the right to speech free of government interference. It is a right we love, a right we mock and a right we abuse every day. The limits of free speech have been debated and defined since the right was established, but negotiating the bounds of free speech on social media has proved exceptionally difficult.

Not all social media was created equal, and certain platforms receive more of a spotlight. Twitter, the famously preferred communication method of former President Donald Trump, has been making even larger waves than usual in the free-speech sphere since it acquired new owner.

According to Fox News, Elon Musk recently bought Twitter (as one does) and has suspended Kanye West, for tweeting a picture that included a swastika. Kanye already had a widely-published history of making and posting anti-Semitic comments, perpetuating the violent history of targeting Jewish people and communities. This is simply the latest example of Kanye using his extremely public platform to spread his discriminatory views, an unfortunately common behavior for right- wing media personalities and celebrities.

How much is Musk to blame? Per the Washington Post, Elon Musk has established himself as a supporter of extreme free speech, which is a nice way to say he has allowed white supremacists and transphobic bullies back on Twitter – consequences to humanity be damned. Politico reported that his actions have garnered support from the Right, despite the repercussions of lax content moderation.

Under our current understanding of the First Amendment, hate speech is a protected type of free speech- but free speech has its limits; even Musk will occasionally enforce restrictions when Twitter users cross the line from hate speech to directly inciting or encouraging violence. However, Musk has proved unwilling to restrict most perpetrators of hate speech: post-Musk Twitter has seen a sharp rise in discriminatory and hateful tweets, creating an environment ripe to more violent calls to action from extremists.

Free speech has long been limited when it “incites imminent lawless action.” Imposing restrictions on what people are allowed to say is a slippery slope, and what to consider violence is not always clear cut. However, it need not be given a platform or publicity. People are not inherently anti-Semitic or racist or sexist or holding any other kind of prejudice. Attitudes are taught and reinforced until they are socially acceptable. Hate speech is not illegal, but it should be unacceptable.

When “free speech” infringes on another’s right to safety and freedom from persecution, where do we draw the line? Where does the GOP draw the line? We should not be defending a system where Kanye’s threat to go “death con 3 on JEWSIH PEOPLE” is only worthy of a slap on the wrist. In our technologically-connected 21st century world, there needs to be a broader understanding of what it means to incite imminent violence. Kanye and other extremists can tweet whatever they like, but Musk should be held responsible for enforcing the repercussions of their actions.

None of this is not to say that social media should become a liberal echo chamber, just that people need to be critical toward the types of speech they glorify. Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences, nor should it be. When to limit free speech is a question for both sides of the spectrum, and the left is not free from criticism. Twitter is absolutely guilty of pushing aside the Hunter Biden controversy to the benefit of Democrats. The difference between that and the resurgence of fundamentalist bigotry on Twitter is simple: Hunter Biden’s laptop is not threatening thousands of people’s well-being.

Are threats to the life, liberty and happiness of minority groups really worth defending all speech as equally valid and worthy of being heard? And is social media, public spheres owned by non-governmental entities, really held to the full extent of the First Amendment? Regardless, Elon Musk is no hero. He is not riding in on a white horse to save us from mythical authoritarian democrats who would silence all opposition. Musk is threatening democracy by allowing the proliferation of hate, and he must stop providing a platform for verbal terrorism. It shouldn’t all be on his shoulders, either: when will we start recognizing the need to update laws on what speech is violent, and what isn’t?