scorecardThe kind of 'free speech' Elon Musk says he wants would be terrible
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The kind of 'free speech' Elon Musk says he wants would be terrible

Henry Blodget   

The kind of 'free speech' Elon Musk says he wants would be terrible
Tech3 min read
  • There are two kinds of "free speech."
  • The Constitutionally protected kind is good — we can criticize our government without going to jail.

Everyone has theories about why Elon Musk publicly insulted and threatened Twitter/X advertisers last week.

My colleague Katie Notopoulos describes one of those theories, which is that he's trying to tank the value of the company so the banks that loaned him money to buy it will be forced to settle for less.

Katie doesn't believe that theory.

I don't either.

I also don't believe the theory that Elon is just stupid or clueless about how to run an ad-supported media business. Whatever "stupid" is, Elon is the opposite of it.

My theory is that Elon felt hurt and jilted by his advertisers and wanted to lash out at them — and also, that Elon cares more about being able to say what he thinks than about the consequences of saying it.

Elon also knows that, unlike most of us, he can handle whatever consequences there might be.

Elon owns Twitter/X. So, unlike everyone who works there, he can't be fired for saying or tweeting/X-ing something. (And anyone who works there — or at any other company — would be fired for saying what Elon said last week).

Also, Elon is worth something like $200 billion. So if Twitter goes bankrupt, and he vaporizes the $44 billion he spent on it, well, then, whatever. He'll still have $150 billion left.

I also think Elon wants to suggest that we should be able to say whatever we want without any consequences—and even that there is a Constitutional right for us to do this.

If so, I respectfully disagree with Elon about that — the "no consequences" part AND the Constitution part.

I also, respectfully, don't think Elon really thinks that.

The First Amendment of the Constitution, the one protecting "freedom of speech," doesn't say that there can be no consequences to what we say. It just says that Congress can't pass a law that prohibits us from saying it.

Of course speech has consequences! As it should!

We know that from every conversation we have with one another. It matters a great deal what we say and how we say it. That's why most of us try to think before we speak, because we don't want to be insulting or rude. We also know that there's a big difference between something being illegal and just being inconsiderate or ill-advised.

Anyway…

Elon clearly wants Twitter/X to be a place where people are allowed to say a wider range of things than they could say under prior ownership. That's fine. He owns it. It's a private platform. He can do what he wants.

And it's also fine for advertisers to say, "It's your platform, and you can do what you want, but we have a choice about where to spend our money, and we're choosing to spend it elsewhere."

That choice by advertisers can be — and, in this case, is — a direct consequence of Elon's saying whatever he wants.

I get that that's frustrating to Elon.

It's painful enough to be told that something you said is dumb.

It's much more painful to learn that what you said is so offensive or objectionable that it's causing your customers to close their wallets and leave your store.

But Elon surely knows and respects that advertisers have a right to spend their money where they want and that, when choosing to where to spend it, they have the right to decide whether they like what they're seeing on a platform.

And Elon, of course, has the same rights.

I doubt, for example, that Elon will choose to have one of his other companies, Tesla, spend lots of their money advertising on Business Insider anytime soon — because I don't think he likes some of what we have published about Tesla.

I wish Tesla and Elon did want to spend lots of their money with Business Insider — journalism is a tough business, and we would be grateful to Tesla and Elon for their support! I would also respectfully submit that the stuff we have published that has annoyed Elon was more carefully researched and considered than some of what is said on Twitter. But we are free to publish what we think is right. And Elon is free to take his business elsewhere.

Neither of those decisions is illegal. But they both have consequences.

And I would respectfully suggest that that is how it should be.

A society in which everyone thinks it's smart and fun and decent and OK to run around shooting their mouths off all day and insulting and offending one another would be miserable to live in.

In fact, it might be like living 24/7 in the darker corners of Twitter/X.

I don't think even Elon would enjoy that!




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