Musk, Twitter, and “Legal Speech”

A brief obeservation.

So, in all this brouhaha about Musk playing at (I am not sure if he is serious or not) taking over Twitter, I note that he is casting it all as some kind of free speech move. He had a Twitter poll up, for example, as to whether free speech was necessary for democracy (check “yes” or “no”)–it was up when I started typing this, but appears to be done (Musk does seem to have far too much time on his hands playing with Twitter given that he is supposed to be revolutionizing the future, or something).

At any rate, one can agree (as I do) that free speech is necessary for democracy and also think that allowing, as Musk proclaims he wants to do, allowing all “legal speech” on Twitter to not be a great idea. There is, of course, also the problem that even in a democratic setting, free speech rights aren’t as simple as saying “yes” or “no.”

Still, as someone who has blogged for nineteen years now, running my own site for quite a while and then helping run this one, I can assure Mr. Musk that allowing open fora on the internet to unfiltered access to all legal speech makes a place unusable.

Almost as soon as the late, lamented PoliBlog was born I had to start dealing with spam comments. Those are legal, I would note. There is nothing illegal about hawking fake boner pills, but man they clog up a comments section pretty damn quickly.

Pornography is not illegal.

Selling extended car warranties is not illegal.

Trolling is not illegal.

Rude behavior is not illegal.

Hate speech is not illegal.

Holocaust denial is not illegal.

And while commercial speech is regulatable, it is not illegal.

I could go on.

While it is true that one can control one’s Twitter feed in a way that one cannot control a comment section on a blog (one can’t unfollow or block obnoxious OTBers, not that we ever have any of those!), the basic principle remains: it is super easy to be a free speech absolutist in the abstract, but the rubber meets the road a pure open forum quickly, and ironically, degenerates into a diminishment of speech, not the other way around.

The notion that free speech absolutism creates a self-regulated environment (e.g., the best solution to bad speech is more speech) is not as functionally true as dorm-room level philosophizing might suggest.

But, Tweets like this one (which I screenshot, lest it disappear also) suggest (along with a lot of other extant evidence) that Musk, for whatever business acumen he may have, is operating on some serious dorm room philosopher energy:

Ah, the droll hilarity.

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Crusty Dem says:

    It’s all ridiculous and idiotic but I’m more concerned about Musk flouting SEC rules on public disclosure – Martha Stewart went to jail for far less and Musk will never be charged or fined for any of this. Musk has $250 billion and is doing the same pump and dump he’s done with cryptocurrency just to get a little richer.

  2. Kurtz says:

    He had a Twitter poll up, for example, as to whether free speech was necessary for democracy (check “yes” or “no”)–it was up when I started typing this, but appears to be done (Musk does seem to have far too much time on his hands playing with Twitter given that he is supposed to be revolutionizing the future, or something).

    Well, it’s common knowledge that CEOs, in addition to running giant corporations with tens of billions of dollars in assets, read 60 books a year. Not to mention that a dude can occupy the office that visibly ages its occupant in short order while spending much of his time watching cable news and clogging toilets.

    Musk’s Twitter time just proves how much smarter and better public figures in business are than everyone else.

  3. grumpy realist says:

    Dude should get back to working on SpaceX and forget about Twitter. The former is essential; the latter is not.

  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    It’s hard to generalize about Twitter but my sense is that it’s become less of a cesspool over the last few years. A primitive and inconsistent ethos may be evolving that’s not as toxic as it once was. So, sure, let’s have a narcissistic man-child jump in and fuck it up.

  5. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    On the statistics statistic, is the problem about statistics that significant numbers of them are actually false, or is it that the conclusions those statistics are used to validate where the falsehood comes into play? (Figures don’t lie, but liars figure and all that.)

  6. Scott O says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    69.420% of couples engaged in a certain sex act are stoned

  7. @Just nutha ignint cracker: I was mostly commented on the 69 and 420 dudebroness of it all.

  8. @Scott O: That, is a wholly different convo!

  9. (and only legal in some states).

  10. EddieInCA says:

    I’ve met Musk. To say that he’s odd would be an understatement. There is no doubt that he’s a visionary. But he’s also mercurial, impulsive, and completely bonkers in other ways.

    I believe he’s incapable of understanding the backlash to many of his actions. Like Trump, and others like him, he lacks a certain empathy gene. With Musk on the spectrum, it’s even harder to explain and understant some of his actions and decisions.

    I think Mark Cuban has it right. He’s messing with the SEC and doing nothing more than an old fashioned pump and dump. Same as he did with Bitcoin.

    Edited addition:

    Also, he’s obsessed with Hollywood. His people are constantly pitching him for projects. He’s appeared on “Young Sheldon” and “The Big Bang Theory” here on the WB lot. He appeared in Ironman 2. He’s done voices for South Park and “Rick and Morty”. He also has a project with Tom Cruise about SpaceX in development. (That’s how I met him). Other than his first wife, Justine, Musk had only dated and married actresses and musician/actresses. He’s a weird dude. No one should date actresses because most of them are crazy. In his relationship with Amber Heard, she was the sane one. That’s saying alot.

  11. senyordave says:

    @Crusty Dem: Martha Stewart was convicted of securities fraud. She was appraised of the fact that ImClone Systems, a company she owned stock in, was not going to get approval for a drug they had developed. She sold before that became public knowledge, and then she and her broker, co-defendant Peter Bacanovic, made up a cover story that she had a standing order to sell the stock at $60. Unfortunately for her, she left behind a trail of evidence, including an altered phone log, which, combined with the testimony of brokerage assistant Douglas Faneuil, proved her guilt.
    Inside trading, lying to the FBI, she deserved her conviction and jail sentence. Did they make an example of her? probably, but when someone worth at least several hundred million does stuff like this I don’t see why she deserves sympathy. Inside trading hurts everyone.
    Elon Musk is a dirtbag, another uber rich guy who has decided (correctly) that most rules and laws don’t apply to him. My guess is he’ll get a slap on the wrist for his failure to disclose his purchase of 10% of Twitter. He may get slapped down harder by the lawsuits from Twitter investors who sold during the period where his interest in Twitter should have been public knowledge. Those people can show real damages since they would have been holding the stock when it went up 30% overnight.
    All this doesn’t make Martha Stewart any less guilty.

  12. Kathy says: not as functionally true as dorm-room level philosophizing might suggest.

    I wonder if Musk uses more than 10% of his brain 🙂

  13. Scott F. says:

    Elon Musk: Dorm Room Philosopher

    Oh man, will I be appropriating that turn of phrase!

  14. just nutha says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: The 69 and 420 references escaped my notice TOTALLY until you mentioned it. (But my gaydar and a lot of other stuff is broken, too.)

  15. Kurtz says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Dude, bruh. Come on don’t drag the 420 people into this… Only some of them are dudebras/dudebros/dudebruhs.

  16. Jay L Gischer says:

    @EddieInCA: I frequently push back at offhand and unbalanced characterizations of Musk here. Your observations are not offhand, nor do they seem inconsistent with what I know of him.

    Furthermore, if it turns out that he has illegally manipulated stock, he should be punished, regardless of whatever other good things he has done.

  17. Jay L Gischer says:

    Twenty years ago, I would have agreed with Musk about online speech. I don’t now.

    I have had communities ruined by trolls coming in and doing the digital equivalent of smearing feces on the wall and making it impossible to carry on a conversation. That still hurts.

    That happens less now at random, but on some hot political topic, the hordes will descend.

    Also, bot-based advertising will ruing a conversation as well.

    So while I don’t think the government should restrict speech, I am uninterested in any platform which doesn’t curate what goes on. The best we can hope for is accountability. Section 230 needs to be altered. We need to start working on how to do this.

  18. Jay L Gischer says:

    You know, I just had a thought about the notion that Musk is a visionary.

    Often you will see in fantasy literature a figure that is a prophet, a visionary. Usually they are insane most of the time, and difficult to understand. And yet, the world relies on their vision.


  19. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:


    There is no doubt that he’s a visionary.

    Oh, I doubt that.
    He has a dogged stick-to-it-edness, I’ll grant that.
    But he essentially stole Tesla and Paypal. And after getting $465M in Gov’t Loans (the same loan program Republicans cursed to no end because of Solyndra) and more money in from the Stimulus Bill and Pandemic Relief funds, he Tweeted;

    “Another government stimulus package is not in the best interests of the people imo [in my opinion].”

    Visionary? Meh.
    Rich deceitful hack, definitely.

  20. mattbernius says:

    If I have time this weekend, I’m going to write about an interesting causation/correlation study that I have yet to process that ties into this.

    The tl:dr; version is that it appears that people who identify as right-wing views are more heavily impacted by moderation rules on platforms like Twitter. However, that appears to be a correlative relationship. The causation is the issue of circulating misinformation.

    Based on studies those (right-wing) folks are more likely to use social media to circulate misinformation (I am not attributing intention to that circulation) in a way that violates the organization’s moderation policies.

    More details here:

  21. Crusty Dem says:


    Martha was definitely guilty, though I do believe her 2nd biggest mistake was having an absolute idiot for a broker. As usual, the coverup was far worse than the crime.

    But she did that for ~$50k in profit. Elon is manipulating multiple markets for billions of dollars, and completely flouting the law with his Twitter disclosures. Despite this, I’ll be shocked if he gets a fine, and the idea of jailtime is laughable.

  22. @Jay L Gischer:

    Twenty years ago, I would have agreed with Musk about online speech. I don’t now.

    Same here (and for similar reasons).

    I used to think that people, on balance, truly wanted conversation and real argument (and thought that respect for expertise and evidence was more commonplace than it actually is).

    Twenty years ago I described myself as “a near absolutist on free speech.” I am far less convinced of that position now, and definitely do not hold that view as it pertains to these comment boxes.

  23. senyordave says:

    @Crusty Dem: If MS was a “normal” schlub who got greedy I don’t think she would have seen a jail cell. But filthy rich people who manipulate the stock market, no matter what the amount, need to be punished, and occasionally made an example of. That being said, I agree with you about Musk. If he gets more than a slap on the wrist I’ll be shocked. He should have gotten a massive fine when he floated the fake rumor of a private buyout of Tesla and the stock popped.

  24. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: For what it’s worth, I think that there are people, and interests, who have been actively working to undermine trust and respect for expertise and evidence. The fossil fuel industry comes to mind, for instance. They have very deep pockets, and thus have been more successful than the anti-vaxxers, where there is less of a financial interest.

  25. Jay L Gischer says:

    First, let me again say that I think that if Musk has violated securities law, he should be punished within the framework of the law, to a similar extent that other violators are punished.

    AND, it’s worth remembering that at one point there was $4 billion in open short interest in Tesla, and the press abounded with negative news stories about Tesla and Musk. I think it’s quite likely that many of these stories were planted by financial interest holding a chunk of those shorts. I’m sure there were many, many rumors spread by those guys. It’s the same pattern of information warfare that we see in the political/diplomatic sphere. And that’s because it’s to some extent the same guys doing it.

    Again, we would not be transitioning to EVs at all if not for Musk. There was a previous attempt in the 1990s that failed utterly, for instance.

  26. @Jay L Gischer:

    Again, we would not be transitioning to EVs at all if not for Musk.

    I am perusable that I am wrong, but I just think this is a vast overstatement.

  27. Jon says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: My take on Elon is that he has pretty much two modes: “You’re not wrong, you’re just an asshole” and “You’re both wrong *and* an asshole.”

  28. @JustAGirl: Well, in no particular order:

    1. I am still not sure what it is that I am supposed to do with Hunter Biden’s laptop. And my position has always been that if he committed a crime, he should be investigated and punished.

    Can I ask you view of Jared Kushner’s latest dealing with Saudi Arabia?

    2. Trump has not been silenced, even if he is no longer on Twitter. I would note that what I wrote in the post is not at odds with banning any given individual from the platform.

    Trump’s First Amendment rights to speak have, in no way, been trampled.

    Where is the inconsistency you see?/What is your point?

    3. It is quite clear that Russian disinformation did play a role in the 2016 campaign (and after). As such, I am not sure of your point unless you are arguing that some maximal version of Russian interference did not happen (but, sure, I don’t disagree with that as a general matter).

    I get the honest sense that you are arguing against strawmen here, rather than concrete positions.

  29. Mimai says:

    Only when he’s communicating nonverbally. Which is 93% of the total.

    Wait, is twitter nonverbal? Antiverbal? Averbal? Preverbal? Postverbal?

    Truth be told, I kinda like Elon Musk. Maybe “appreciate” is a better word for it.

  30. Lounsbury says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: It is. It only makes a modest bit of sense from an American market perspective and even then, all

    That said, Musk’s contriution in bootstrapping Telsa is a real industrial achieement even if over-hyped, adn certainly helped and helps pull the market forward.
    @Steven L. Taylor: apparently there is not an understanding on her part of what censorship is.

  31. OzarkHillbilly says:

    How long would it take me to get banned from twitter for insulting Musk for the things he has done that are a matter of record (both good and bad)? He is an easy target, and very thin skinned.

  32. Franklin says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    But he essentially stole Tesla and Paypal.

    Oh, c’mon. And don’t forget SpaceX and Hyperloop and solar roofing. If you’ve read any biographies about him, he is 100% a visionary. That doesn’t mean he invented rockets or electric cars. He saw how to make the whole thing work, though. And in a way that GM and everybody else failed before him. (Yes, his doggedness that you cite absolutely helped here.)

  33. @Lounsbury: @Franklin: I think he clearly gets some credit for where we are with electric vehicles, but giving him as much credit as some are giving here seems to ignore, for example, the precursor work in electric/gas hybrids that Toyota and Honda did, which has translated into full electric in their fleets. I think that Prius, for example, did more to get us down this pathway than Musk did.

    Telsa made electric cool but it feels like the second or third wave of the current movement towards all-electric, not the vanguard.

  34. Bob@Youngstown says:

    The basic problem that I have with free speech absolutists is, a failure to recognize that speech that is legal can actually be very harmful.

    Myriad examples, deliberate misinformation on diseases, deliberate misinformation on voting locations to begin the list.

    Free speech can easily become a powerful weapon used to undo a “free” nation.