The Free Speech Movement Is a Debate We Should Be Having

The Free Speech Movement Is a Debate We Should Be Having

Op-Ed: How Elon Musk’s plans for Twitter could threaten free speech

The free speech movement has a lot going for it: It has helped bring down dictators and, in the case of the Chinese government, the Chinese military. It has also helped bring down governments in Europe and North America. If you look at the recent developments in China, for example, it is telling that we have a free speech movement that focuses on social media, when social media has been a key part of allowing China to exert an extraordinary amount of control over its people. By putting this case in the context of the free speech movement’s history, it becomes clear that this is a debate we should be having. But let’s do it anyway.

On October 1, 2016, three days after the inauguration of a new Chinese president, Xi Jinping, Twitter announced that it would be suspending tens of thousands of accounts for engaging in “direct threats.” Twitter had previously blocked or deactivated accounts that had received direct threats before, but the company said that, for the first time, “we are extending this policy to the full range of credible threats and to all verified accounts.”

Some people, notably the New York Times, argued that these actions were a “bombshell.” After all, if Twitter were violating China’s laws by blocking accounts that it knew might be used to threaten China, then surely it would also block accounts that it knew were used as tools for terrorists, or for recruiting fighters in places like Syria.

This is an understandable reaction. But it ignores a key point of free speech law: it doesn’t matter whether there are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers on Twitter. What matters is whether the speech is “true threats.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if some of these accounts are terrorists, or supporters of terrorists, or even friends of terrorists, or even people that support terrorists. What matters is that the accounts are used to communicate a violent message.

As such, this policy is a good example of

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