Last month, Elon Musk’s decision to purchase Twitter brought an already simmering debate about the nature and necessity of free speech in America to a spitting boil. With the deal currently on hold, some of that heat has dissipated, but not before the Twitter public speculated about how the billionaire could work past regulatory hurdles, take ownership, introduce new moderation rules, and perhaps even welcome former President Donald Trump back to the platform.
Musk’s supporters contend his version of Twitter will be a bastion of unfettered debate, a democratic public square in which everyone may have their say. Critics paint a grimmer picture: Musk’s anticipated revocation of many of Twitter’s current policies will make the social network a haven for hate speech and threats.
Musk himself has taken a strange tack, arguing in terms of popularity rather than principle and grounding freedom to speak in changeable policy instead of any inherent human right: “By ‘free speech,’ I simply mean that which matches the law,” he tweeted shortly after the buyout news broke. “If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.”
It is a chaotic, confusing conversation in which Christians may feel pulled in several directions at once, drawn to defense of free speech—a crucial civil liberty, and one closely related to religious freedom—but also wary of inviting even more unloving words and objectionable content into the public square of social media. And if his tweet is any indication, Musk may add to the confusion more than he relieves it.
The distinction Musk and many of his critics fail to make is this: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” (Eccl. 3:1). Different circumstances require different norms and protections for speech. We don’t have to fight a zero-sum game to enshrine a single code all the time and everywhere.
The First Amendment is an invaluable inheritance—and a rarer one than Americans may realize. Even Western democracies like Canada don’t enjoy the speech freedoms we have. In 2018, for example, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the conviction of a woman in Austria who had disparaged the Prophet Muhammad. Scotland has criminalized the vague act of “stirring up” hatred, even during conversation in a private home. Amnesty International reports “thousands” are convicted in France each year for “contempt of public officials,” and in many European nations, you can serve time for “disparaging” the head of state. In Finland, as CT has reported, a lawmaker who tweeted Bible verses about gender faced trial (his charges later dropped) for hate speech this year.
Against that backdrop, Musk’s constitutional enthusiasm is welcome. But the value of the First Amendment doesn’t mean we should play by its rules in every situation. You can ban obscene content from a social network or prohibit ad hominem attacks in a political discussion or forbid offensive language in your home while also remaining a free speech absolutist (as I am) where the law is concerned.
“The harder the topic,” Christian writer Leah Libresco Sargeant has argued, “the more guardrails you need.” Moreover, Twitter’s standards need not be as permissive as the Constitution’s for free speech to remain inviolate in our society. We all already spend the bulk of our lives in spaces with stricter rules than the First Amendment: Every school, job, church, store, or party you’ve attended was less permissive than the Constitution, and none of that undermined our legal right to free speech.
Moreover, going “beyond the law” in a private setting isn’t “contrary to the will of the people,” as Musk claimed—if anything, the evidence suggests the opposite is true. We already know what happens when you create a social media site where everything constitutionally permissible is allowed. It’s called Gab, and it’s known as a hotbed of disgusting antisemitism and gross racism. (It’s also historically had a serious pornbot problem.) Predictably, Gab’s user base is far smaller than those of mainstream, more aggressively moderated sites like Twitter.
None of that is to suggest moderating a massive social network is easy or that current moderation norms get everything right. Facebook’s suppression of discussion around the lab leak theory of COVID-19’s origin and Twitter’s decision to block shares of the original report on the Hunter Biden laptop story—later determined to be substantially true—stand out as recent, high-profile examples of moderation failures.
Even if networks stop trying to adjudicate truth claims, copying a longstanding distinction in First Amendment jurisprudence, the line between regulation of conduct and content is often blurry. One man’s factual statement about biological sex is another’s hateful attack on transgender people’s right to exist.
Maybe someday someone will develop the perfect moderation policy, along with artificial intelligence sophisticated enough to ethically enforce it. Or perhaps Musk’s freewheeling approach will win out, and we’ll accept legality as the new standard of online discourse.
All of that, realistically, is outside of my control—and yours. And increasingly I think the more pressing question for Christians is not what external constraints we should accept but what internal constraints we can develop. Fewer rules, more virtue, for “[n]either the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws,” as Samuel Adams wrote, “will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt.”
At least as often we debate free speech and moderation policies, then, we can and should concern ourselves with our own responsibilities: to speak truthfully, graciously, and prudently (Prov. 22:21, 22:11, 29:20); in defense of “those who cannot speak for themselves” (31:8); always in love (Eph. 4:15); “as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom” (Jas. 2:12); and in obedience to “God rather than human beings” (Acts 5:29), though “[a]gainst such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:23).
These charges, for Christians, remain the same under any speech regime, lax or draconian, and in any culture, prudish or prurient. They’ll even stay the same if Elon Musk owns Twitter.