Make speech free again: Elon Musk and the New York Times to the rescue  

Unless you live under a rock, you must have heard this week’s big news: Elon Musk, the world’s wealthiest man, has bought a 9.2 percent stake in Twitter, making him the platform’s largest shareholder and the newest member of Twitter’s board of directors.

It is an enthralling development on a variety of fronts. Twitter stock jumped 30 percent once word got out about Musk’s buy-in. Having invested some US$3 billion, what Musk made on that spike alone is more than us mere mortals can comprehend.

The Tesla and SpaceX chief now has four times the share of Twitter’s co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey. This fact wouldn’t have tongues wagging if it weren’t for Musk’s curious commentary on Twitter both immediately before and after his purchase.

“Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy. Do you believe Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle?” the business magnate tweeted on March 25. “The consequences of this poll will be important. Please vote carefully.”

Over 70 percent of the two million users who responded said that Twitter does not give adequate room for free speech.

A day later, Musk wrote, “Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy. What should be done? Is a new platform needed?”

Musk is no neutral player. Like most big investors, he is obviously motivated by potential for personal gain. In 2018, Musk paid fines and agreed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission to reign in his tweets about the electric car market, after one particular tweet caused a surge in the value of Tesla stock.

There is no doubt that Musk understands what his new role at Twitter could mean for his other investments.

But Musk has also been a consistent critic of left-wing censorship and has not shied away from critiquing wokeness — both on Twitter and in the real world. The elated response of conservatives to this week’s news is evidence enough that one side of the political aisle stands to gain the most from Musk’s latest move.

Elon Musk hasn’t been the only big brand to come out swinging for free speech in recent weeks. Also entering the ring is — and you may want to sit down for this one — the New York Times.

“Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned,” the Times’ editorial board mused last month.

In the piece entitled, “America Has a Free Speech Problem”, some alarming results of a Times Opinion/Siena College poll were cited. Among them: 46 percent of respondents said they felt less free to talk about politics compared to a decade ago, and 55 percent said they’d held their tongue over the past year to avoid retaliation or harsh criticism.

In words that might have flowed from the pen of any principled conservative or libertarian, the New York Times editorial board opined that:

Freedom of speech and expression is vital to human beings’ search for truth and knowledge about our world. A society that values freedom of speech can benefit from the full diversity of its people and their ideas. At the individual level, human beings cannot flourish without the confidence to take risks, pursue ideas and express thoughts that others might reject.  

Most important, freedom of speech is the bedrock of democratic self-government. If people feel free to express their views in their communities, the democratic process can respond to and resolve competing ideas. Ideas that go unchallenged by opposing views risk becoming weak and brittle rather than being strengthened by tough scrutiny. When speech is stifled or when dissenters are shut out of public discourse, a society also loses its ability to resolve conflict, and it faces the risk of political violence

One can’t help but wonder how estranged Times editors James Bennet and Bari Weiss would react to these words. Bennet quit his role at the Gray Lady after facing backlash for green-lighting an op-ed by a Republican Senator that argued for military intervention in America’s spiralling 2020 riots. Weiss quit shortly after, penning a resignation letter that included these stinging words:

A new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.     

Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions.

Has the New York Times turned a new leaf? Unlikely. The editorial board’s piece promises readers that “the Times does not allow hate speech in our pages”. Its faux moral high ground made the paper of record and its allies sound centrist and located America’s free speech problems elsewhere.

I’m not sure how many will buy it.

The Times’ reaction to Elon Musk’s sleuth move will be far more instructive about the paper’s true stance on free speech.

In the meantime, I have more hope for free speech reforms through the wheelings and dealings of a certain eccentric billionaire.


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