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Elon Musk, The Buffalo Shooting, Texas, And Internet Free Speech

 |  June 7, 2022

By: Tom Wheeler (TechTank)

Recent headlines graphically illustrate that the United States has yet to discover how to deal with the intersection of free speech and online behavior.

  • Elon Musk offered to buy Twitter and promised to reduce the amount of content moderation on the platform.
  • An 18-year-old gunman killed 10 people in a Buffalo supermarket and streamed the massacre live online.
  • A federal court allowed a new Texas law to go into effect making it illegal for online platforms to block or otherwise edit content.

Elon Musk and Twitter

Elon Musk’s first tweet after Twitter’s board accepted his acquisition offer was, “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy.” The following day he tweeted, “By ‘free speech’, I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law.”  

The law, of course, is rooted in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States which constrains government involvement in matters of speech. Aside from obvious offenses such as child pornography and insurrection, the law permits private entities wide latitude in their speech activities. This means, for instance, that digital platforms such as Twitter are free to distribute Russian, Chinese, or Nazi propaganda.  

Twitter has long struggled with the responsibility free speech bestows on it. After the 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right rally resulted in the death of an anti-racism protester, for instance, Twitter removed the account of the American Nazi Party. Mr. Musk’s new “that which matches the law” policy calls attention to how the Nazi party is not illegal—nor is the distribution of the Buffalo video of a white supremacist. 

Buffalo’s Live Video  

The individual alleged to be the Buffalo killer reportedly wrote of being inspired by the 2019 online shooting spree at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. The vehicle for the Christchurch video was 4chan, a notoriously hate-filled and poorly policed online forum…