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Elon, You Have Much To Learn About Free Speech
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Elon, You Have Much To Learn About Free Speech

An open letter to the owner of Twitter.

Twitter owner Elon Musk and his Twitter profile. (Photo by Muhammed Selim Korkutata / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.)

Hey, Elon. Big fan, albeit one of those who believed (and still believes) that your talents are a lot better suited to building cool cars and rockets and stuff than running Twitter, that great open sewer of contemporary public life. I’m not looking for a job—the last time I went to work for a jumped-up media dilettante enthroned atop a vast heap of Silicon Valley money, it went poorly—but, buddy, you need a tutor. 

If you’re going to be in the free-speech business, then you need to learn a little bit about free speech. You’re not in South Africa anymore—hell, you’re not in Canada anymore. 

In defending your decision to bend the knee to Turkish caudillo Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, you wrote: “By ‘free speech,’ I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes 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.”

That may have been the dumbest thing published on Twitter during that particular 24-hour period—no mean feat—or maybe just the most childish, as my colleague Nick Catoggio wrote recently. It even made me rethink my conviction that you are poorly suited to run Twitter: If you really believe that the limit on free speech is whatever the “will of the people” says it is, then Twitter, with its ochlocratic mob mentality, is just the right place for you—which is just about the worst thing you can say about someone, I’m afraid. 

A few things to think about.

First, there is no such thing as “censorship that goes beyond the law.” Censorship is the lawful suppression of speech. There are lots of horrifying things that are, or were, lawful: American slavery was lawful; the Nazis went to great lengths to legally codify their racial superstitions; the suppression and mutilation of women in Saudi Arabia is lawful. If free speech “simply means that which matches the law”—U.S. law, Saudi law, Chinese law—then the words “free speech” do not mean anything at all.  

The question you have to answer is whether you are in the free speech business or just in the convenient speech business. 

If we take you at your word, what you propose is that Twitter be a place for speech which is convenient but unfree—you can post whatever the local strongman or party committee or warlord gives you permission to post, and nothing else, and do it conveniently. But what was genuinely radical and world-changing was something we started to see back in the 17th century, when publishing anything at all was difficult and expensive—books once cost a great deal of money—but when certain farsighted publishers got it into their heads that the press should be free. One of the great heroes of that time—one of the great free-speech heroes of all time—was Louis Elsevier, from whom the modern academic publisher takes its name. It was the House of Elsevier that arranged for Galileo Galilei’s forbidden Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences out of Inquisition-dominated Italy and into freethinking Amsterdam, where it was published. It was a bold—and profitable—venture. It also involved a good deal of lawbreaking.

Now, under the standard you have articulated, Elsevier should have respected local laws rather than conspire to evade them. The lawful thing to do would have been to cooperate with the Inquisition’s effort to ban books by authors under its lawful authority. And there is a case for that: You don’t have to be a free-speech hero. You can just be an ordinary businessman. Jeff Bezos is in the book business, and he obviously doesn’t give a damn about free speech—he’ll cravenly pull books from Amazon with only a little bullying. But if you are going to present yourself as a free-speech hero, then you have to put in the work and take some risks. 

It is easy for anybody to publish whatever happens to be in his head at any given moment on Twitter—that is why Twitter is a cesspool. It would be better in many ways if speech were more difficult (the professional publishing process, with its editors and fact-checkers and significant expense has its problems, but it has many virtues, too) but also more free: Free enough that some daring publisher might risk losing a few bucks or incurring some inconvenience by telling the occasional autocrat to go jump in the proverbial lake. 

But, Elon, I don’t think your main problem is lack of intellectual clarity, even though you do obviously need to study up a bit. Your problem—and this is going to sting a little—is cowardice

You cannot be a champion of free speech and a champion of the “will of the people” at the same time. And, in truth, nobody wants to be. The “will of the people” is, and always has been, a hiding place for moral and intellectual cowards. It is a way to avoid taking responsibility for one’s own actions and one’s own choices—“It wasn’t me—it was the People!” It is a particularly cowardly version of the Nuremberg defense: “I was just following orders from … nobody I can name, exactly, but, you know, the People.”

The preamble to the U.S. Constitution famously begins with “We the People,” but, more important, it sets explicit limits on what the people can do to a person. We have freedom of speech in the United States, where for good reason you have decided to live and work, not because of the will of the people but in spite of it. We have freedom of speech if 100 percent of the people want it, if 95 percent of the people want it, if 51 percent of the people want it, if 2 percent of the people want it, and even if, at any given moment or context, 0.00 percent of the people want it. 

The same holds true for freedom of religion, for the right to keep and bear arms, and the other items detailed in the Bill of Rights. The same holds true for the prohibition of slavery. We put those issues beyond the reach of the ordinary democratic process precisely because the will of the people is inconstant, fickle, fearful, easily manipulated, vindictive, etc. If you had taken a poll in 1865, you would have discovered that the will of the people was not very interested in—and was in fact generally opposed to—the abolition of slavery. But the members of Congress at that time knew their Burke: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays you instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Twitter is, of course, garbage designed to be garbage. It is possible to imagine a version of the general idea that isn’t garbage, but it also wouldn’t be Twitter. But I wonder if it has occurred to you, Elon, that Twitter is garbage for precisely the same reason that your “will of the people” nonsense is garbage. The idea that ignorance, hatred, and banality somehow are magically transmuted into gold when they are aggregated on a sufficiently massive scale is the intellectual basis, such as it is, of ochlocracy, mob rule, and demagoguery in the political realm, and of the kind of vicious hyper-conformism that characterizes Twitter (and much else) in the realm beyond political action per se. 

So, that’s the score, Elon: If you want to be a free-speech hero, you are going to have to learn to stand up to the will of the people and tell the people to take a hike. Or you can be a less focused version of Mark Zuckerberg. It’s all the same, to me. Really, I’d prefer you spent your time building rockets. But it’s your money. 

Your soul, too. 

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.