Explaining Free Speech to the Twitterati (Elon Musk Edition)

- AMERICAN INSTITUTE FOR ECONOMIC RESEARCH - Max Borders - APR 5, 2022 -


Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error. … Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments. To make way for these, free enquiry must be indulged; and how can we wish others to indulge it while we refuse it ourselves.


– Thomas Jefferson, from Notes on the State of Virginia


If ever you were wondering about free speech, you could turn to Twitter. The Twitterati will tell you everything you need to know about free speech and what it means in 280 characters or less.



First, they will tell you that free speech has nothing to do with anything that happens on Twitter because Twitter is a private company.


Private companies may control speech as they wish “ya dopes” because the Constitution only protects citizens from censorship by the U.S. government.


Got that?


Free speech has been reduced to 45 words. And if you are not a U.S. citizen, those words don’t apply.


Then, they will tell you that critics of private companies like Twitter are, therefore, not only out of bounds but that free speech concerns are an affront to freedom of association (and therefore also disassociation).


From this, you might think that apologists for digital lynch mobs and private censorship have been worshipping at the altar of libertarian brutalism. Though technically accurate in Abstractionland, narrow construals of free speech overlook more than a few essential points.


Free Speech: Letter and Spirit


In the United States, it is true that the First Amendment only protects people from government censorship. It is also true that private property rights trump free speech. Property owners generally make the rules about speech on their property, and those rules can be illiberal, arbitrary, and grossly unfair as long as the government is not involved in setting those policies. (The latter point is an important qualifier to which we’ll return).


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