Tech & Rights

What Is Free Speech Absolutism? Who Is a Free speech Absolutist? Examples, Pros and Cons

Elon Musk called himself a “free speech absolutist” when he announced he would buy Twitter. But what does free speech absolutism actually mean? What might sound good in theory may not be good in practice.

by Eleanor Brooks & Jonathan Day

Elon Musk, a polarizing entrepreneur and self-avowed “free speech absolutist”, intends to buy Twitter. He has said that the social media platform – a private entity – does not protect free speech adequately and indicated he will remove certain restrictions on what users are allowed to say.

His bid sent shockwaves across social media and provoked a deluge of articles and opinion pieces on the future of Twitter. But there has been surprisingly little said about an idea at the very core of his actions: free speech absolutism. What is it, and can Musk fairly call himself a free speech absolutist?

What is free speech absolutism?

Free speech absolutism has its roots in philosophical theories dating back to the 17th century, but it was first discussed as a defined principle by the 20th century free speech advocate and philosopher Alexander Meiklejohn. He believed that in order for a nation to be considered autonomous, the people should be able to express themselves freely about matters related to self-governance without any limitations being placed on speech by governments or the state.

His writing focused on the United States, and much of his thoughts were put forth in the context of American constitutional law. In fact, the very idea of “absolutism” – that there are certain absolute principles in political, philosophical, ethical, or religious matters – is an American idea. In theory, a free speech absolutist would be extremely hesitant (or refuse) to draw a line between free speech and hate speech in most contexts, and in all contexts where the speech could possibly be considered political speech. Without exception, all Western European countries define themselves in opposition to the American absolutist position when it comes to hate speech.

Free speech absolutists believe that in order for a nation to be considered autonomous, the people should be able to express themselves freely about matters related to self-governance without any limitations being placed on speech by governments or the state.

This commitment to self-rule, in Meiklejohn’s view, justified and formed the basis of the constitutional right to unfettered free speech guaranteed by the United States Constitution, and warranted its absolute nature, meaning it should not be weakened or watered down to bend to other social values.

However, his understanding didn’t extend to private speech about issues not of public concern. So, while your right to publish your views about a social issue is safeguarded, even if others may take offense, Meiklejohn believed that you can’t rely on free speech protection to shout casual abuse at someone on the street.

In essence, free speech absolutism is the belief that we all have an inalienable right to political free speech, and the state cannot introduce any laws which curb the freedom of expression or its associated rights, including freedom of religion, speech, press and association.

Who counts as a free speech absolutist?

The majority of people consider free speech to be important. Politically, it allows us to contribute meaningfully to decisions about how we are governed and makes it possible for us to be informed about what is happening in society. On a personal level, the freedom to express ourselves however we choose, from how we dress to the books we read, is intrinsic to our personhood and happiness.

But that doesn’t necessarily make us free speech absolutists.

Despite enjoying these liberties, most of us understand that all speech should be protected, if it is politically motivated. But if, say, someone made a public speech in support of a certain politician or political idea and ended by calling on people to commit violence against whoever opposed the politician, that would not fall within the freedom of expression, but rather hate speech, which is not protected.

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Free speech absolutists believe that any limitation on political speech is veering into dangerous territory. They believe that restricting free speech in any way, including curbing insulting or factually incorrect speech, means assigning gatekeepers who decide what can and cannot be expressed in public. This process is littered with hazards – it’s ripe for abuse, there’s no clear consensus on who would be qualified to determine this, never mind the fact that the very last thing a free society should want would be for platforms like Twitter and Facebook to become arbiters of free speech.

The core of a free speech absolutist’s belief is the idea that only through a free exchange of views can we reach the “truth”. This is also known as the “marketplace of ideas”, an idea that has origins in John Milton’s work from the 17th century, and more concretely in the writings of philosopher John Stuart Mill in the 19th century. The marketplace of ideas holds that truth emerges from the competition of ideas in free public discourse. And this is likely the idea Musk has in mind, as he’s even said that Twitter should be a “digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated”.

However, even within the clique of free speech absolutists, there is disagreement about how far the theory should go. For example, not every absolutist agrees with Meiklejohn’s view that only political speech falls within the bounds of free speech. It’s quite possible this includes Musk. After all, he’s used his own Twitter account to baselessly accuse a British diver of being a pedophile and said that, should the sale go through, he will restore accounts of people – including Donald Trump – who spread COVID-19 disinformation and fomented violence after the 2020 US election.

Free speech absolutists around the world: then and now

Justices Hugo Black and William Douglas, two esteemed American jurists who served on the Supreme Court, were free speech absolutists who held a literal interpretation of the First Amendment. In their view, speech of all kinds should be free, with some exceptions. For example, certain expressive conduct (behavior intended to convey a message) was not protected, such as falsely shouting “fire” in a cinema, and should be regarded (and controlled) as action rather than words. Douglas, who feared that any limits on free speech risked a gradual shift to state mandated conformity, believed that all political speech was protected.

Today, however, there are many – quite possibly including Musk himself – who think free speech absolutism extends far beyond political speech. This appears to have a lot to do with cultural shifts, particularly in the United States. Free speech absolutism has gained currency in recent years as a reaction to so-called cancel culture: the decisions by private entities, such as universities or publishing houses, to disinvite certain speakers or decline to publish books from certain individuals with a history of incendiary public comments.

Of course, many of these are not free speech issues – private entities are under no obligation to give an equal platform to everyone in the US. But very many people have said such instances are violations of free speech. The removal of Donald Trump’s Twitter account is a good example. Assuming Twitter followed rules and procedures, it had every right to ban Trump’s account. And yet seemingly every reaction from the political right was that this was a violation of free speech.

Pros and cons of free speech absolutism

An attractive quality of free speech absolutism is that it allows us to side-step some very messy questions which require answers that are almost impossible to agree on. If not all speech is free, who gets to make the decision about what is protected and what isn’t, and how do we stop those gatekeepers from abusing their power?

It is hard to answer such questions without making value judgments about what is “good” or “bad” and “right” or “wrong”, which could be a slippery slope to censorship. However, free speech absolutism does not guarantee everyone that their voice will be heard. Issues like unequal access to platforms and the revenue-first business models of social media platforms mean that some people will always face difficulties making themselves heard, and some voices will always be amplified more than others.

Future of free speech absolutism: where will its path lead?

Elon Musk has taken up the mantle of the 21st century free speech absolutist. Similar to his forefathers, the Tesla CEO has described free speech as being “the bedrock of a functioning democracy” – and that much he has right. But it is by no means clear that he will use Twitter, which he plans to privatize, for pure intentions.

Despite his lofty declarations, Musk has a track record of silencing his critics. To give one example, a former employee of Tesla was fired for raising safety concerns about a Tesla autopilot function on his YouTube channel. This strikes at the core of Musk’s incongruity on the issue. From a legal standpoint, that action had nothing to do with free speech law. And yet the former employee’s words are exactly the sort of “free speech” Musk claims to be crusading for.

Even if we were to pursue a quest of free speech absolutism, there will still be gatekeepers controlling the content we consume. Be it the billionaires buying media outlets and social media platforms, or magazine editors who decide what stories get published, most of what we read has been decided by someone else. A more realist approach allows these conversations to happen in the open.

The Digital Services Act soon to be approved by the EU Parliament is one such example. Walking the line between regulation and free speech without veering into censorship is a delicate task which requires many voices, which is why Liberties has campaigned heavily to ensure the final text preserves free speech and platforms, such as Twitter follows rules and create transparent and effective complaint and redress mechanism in case of unfair content removal.

And whatever his plans for Twitter may be, in Europe even Musk is bound by DSA.

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