My Free Speech Means You Have To Shut Up

Elon Musk and The Enduring Appeal of “Criticism is Censorship”

Elon Musk wants you to know that big advertisers hate free speech and want to suppress yours.

Now, surely part of that is a pitch — Musk wants you to pay for Twitter Premium (sorry, X premium) so you don’t have to see ads while you consume X’s content. But there’s a big dollop of sincerity too. Elon Musk genuinely feels that advertisers are a threat to free speech. Why? Because many advertisers fled X after Musk eagerly endorsed a bigot’s articulation of anti-Semitic theories, including that Jews promote hatred of whites and that Jews are importing “hordes of minorities.” Unsurprisingly, many companies aren’t cool with that. That’s a mix of corporate leadership thinking that such bigotry is bad business and thinking that it’s immoral.

Private companies have a First Amendment right to make such a decision. They have the right to express their values — and choose their marketing strategy — by deciding what kind of media content to promote. They have freedom of association to refrain from advertising on platforms that repulse their customers. Those rights are held both by the corporate advertisers and by the individuals making decisions for them. Elon Musk’s sullen yawp amounts to a claim that he has a right for companies to sponsor his speech, no matter what he says. That’s nonsense, both legally and philosophically.

It doesn’t stop there. Musk is also a fan of the theory that when he speaks, your criticism of him violates his rights. His latest articulation of this theory came after Media Matters published an article claiming that X is running ads for prominent companies next to bigoted content on X. Musk responded with an extravagant, mostly incoherent threat to file a “thermonuclear” lawsuit against Media Matters and its board and donors “to protect free speech,” whose criticism “seeks to undermine freedom of expression on our platform.”

Last Friday night Musk announced that X would sue Media Matters “the split second court opens on Monday.” I’m confident that Musk’s obliging attorney, Alex Spiro, knows that complaints in both San Francisco County Superior Court and the United States District Court for the Northern District of California may be electronically filed 24/7 these days. In fact I’m confident he has e-filing accounts for both courts. It may be Mr. Spiro didn’t see fit to tell that to Elon Musk Friday night. One sympathizes. Mr. Spire’s firm Quinn Emmanuel is as crowded with former federal prosecutors as a judicial convention, and carefully cultivates its reputation for being almost as good as it thinks it is. They’re excellent trial lawyers; just look at their advertisement saying so on the concourse at Burbank Airport.

Some might suggest that suing journalists to defend free speech sounds Orwellian and even unhinged. That’s because you haven’t considered that free speech also requires that journalists be prosecuted for fraud:

Just as the tree of liberty must occasionally be refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants, freedom of speech must occasionally be protected by an unemployed ghoul and a personality disordered Boer persuading a bland FedSoc apparatchik to pester journalists for questioning billionaires.

It would be easy to blame this contemptible nonsense on Elon Musk being socially inept, proudly ignorant, and grotesquely petulant. But when it comes to thinking that the right to free speech includes the right to silence others, Elon learned it by watching us, okay? He learned it by watching us.

“Your criticism violates my right to free speech” is a fatuous but common American sentiment. It has been for some time. We’ve long heard it from athletes, like John Rocker complaining of a “defective reality” in which free speech is a myth because we’ve lost the ability “to speak freely without fear of chastisement.” We’ve long heard it from entertainers, like Clint Eastwood complaining that he should be able to tell ethnic jokes without fearing he’ll be called “a racist,” or Kirk Cameron saying that he should be able to speak out condemning homosexuality without being “slandered” or “accused of hate speech.” Note all of those stories are more than a decade old; I raise them to demonstrate that this has been going on a while, and I’ve been complaining about it for a while.

“Criticism is censorship” has been a standard trope in politics and punditry even longer, and has persisted there even more consistently. Calling Trump a racist, we are frequently told, violates his free speech rights:

Pundits, academics, and politicians are all guilty of this. College presidents assert that students protesting studio executives are infringing on free speech. Senator Ron Johnson claims that criticizing his stance on Black Lives Matter amounts to “silencing him,” and Justice Samuel Alito suggests that criticizing anti-gay political and legal positions impairs free speech. The trope is so embedded in the culture that even people with admirable records of free speech advocacy convince themselves that people protesting them are against free speech as opposed to disagreeing with and criticizing their speech.

Regrettably, the notion that criticism is censorship has been encouraged by the dialogue about “cancel culture.” The New York Times Editorial Board proclaims Americans are losing “ right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.” An earnest but painfully vague letter from literary luminaries in Harper’s conflates “restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society.” People who are sincerely concerned about free expression, people I admire and respect, argue that we must avoid “manipulative” and “ad hominem” criticism to protect speech — without really engaging the problem that both the critic and the criticized are people with free speech rights and interests.

I’ve argued that if “cancel culture” dialogue is to actually promote free speech — as opposed to just picking sides and choosing whose speech we care about, who should feel comfortable speaking — it needs to acknowledge the speech interests of everyone involved and be more specific, even to the point of pedantry. That’s not happening. If anything, the dialogue is getting muddier. Witness the disastrous discussions about campus speech about the war in Israel, characterized by commentators claiming back and forth that their rights are infringed by other people’s speech about war and death, that criticism of their speech about the war violates their rights.

I’m not optimistic, frankly. Elon Musk’s gripe that advertisers are attacking free speech, and that journalists are infringing speech by criticizing it, has become perfectly plausible to many Americans. In my view, too many critics of “cancel culture” are recklessly promoting not the speech of the powerless, but the censorious resentment of the powerful.

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