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Debate on free speech and hate speech persists as Elon Musk tries to buy Twitter

Elon Musk
Posted at 7:37 PM, Apr 28, 2022

Free speech used to be considered dangerous in many areas, and today it still is. Before the founding fathers decided to protect it in the Bill of Rights, speaking your mind could get you thrown in prison or even killed. That's probably why it went down as amendment one. But sometimes we can get its meaning confused, especially on social media.

"It's always important to remember the first amendment does not apply to private actors. The first amendment only applies to what is state action," said Derigan Silver, a media law professor at the University of Denver.

"If Facebook were to ban me, or Twitter was to take down one of my tweets, all of those things might affect my ability to express myself, but none of those is a violation of the first amendment. Because the first amendment doesn't apply to Twitter, it doesn't apply to Facebook," Silver said.

Just to emphasize that point again, private companies do not have an obligation to observe your first amendment rights, because, they're not the government. Free speech experts, like Silver, point out that free speech protections are something very different than hate speech.

Some are worried that because Musk has pledged to uphold free speech, that might open the door to hate speech. Hate speech is defined as abusive or threatening speech or writing that expresses prejudice against a particular group.

"Elon himself has called himself a free speech actualist, right? And he really promises to take almost no action and no restrictions on what he's going to do. That to me is a very dangerous thing," said Masood Akhtar, the founder of We Are the Many – United Against Hate, which is an organization dedicated to fighting hate, bigotry and racism.

Twitter's current terms of service state that hateful content is grounds for removal of individual tweets, suspension of accounts, and removal of accounts. Some worry Musk might remove that language.

Musk has only said "Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square,"

I also spoke to John Vaudreuil, a board member of United Against Hate and the former US Attorney in Western Wisconsin. He told me the issue of hate speech came up in the Supreme Court with a case against the Westboro Baptist Church. He told me the court came down clearly on hate speech.

"The Supreme Court said, essentially, that hate speech is protected so it doesn't, and this is important, doesn't stifle public debate about public issues," said Vaudreuil.

So, free speech, speaking out against the government, is protected from the government coming after you in the United States. But, there's no constitutional guarantee that you can post hate speech. The new twitter can choose to allow it or continue banning it.