The Censorship Temptation

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Elon Musk has bought Twitter, promising to unshackle what’s supposed to be a free speech forum from the chains of progressive ruling class censorship. This is a major victory for free expression — witness all the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the corrupt news media and political establishments.

But it’s important to remember that there is no shortage of temptations to ignore our First Amendment rights to free expression and pervert the law into a club to banish disturbing speech. Indeed, ever more people demand we outlaw all “hate speech” and “disinformation” in the name of “equity” and “social justice.”

Examples are legion; here’s a recent one. To justify their attempt to ban any pro-Israel speakers from the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, the school’s Law Students for Justice in Palestine explain: “Free speech and the exchange of ideas cannot be romanticized when the byproduct of such rhetoric causes harm to marginalized communities.” Of course, such “reasoning” can easily justify the suppression of any statement alleged to “harm” some preferred group.

Ironically, totalitarians are acutely aware of the power of freedom and the ideas it conveys.


But freedom fans know, as George Orwell observed, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Indeed, as Justice Harlan Fiske Stone noted, “If only popular causes are entitled to enjoy the benefit of constitutional guarantees, they serve no purpose, and could as well not have been written.” Furthermore, we’re all vulnerable to the whims of speech censors. Thomas Paine understood that “he that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression.”

Ironically, totalitarians are acutely aware of the power of freedom and the ideas it conveys. Lenin proclaimed, “It is true that liberty is precious, so precious that it must be rationed.” Stalin, his even less tolerant disciple, said, “Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns; why should we let them have ideas?”

Alas, the world has been littered with formerly free lands transformed into totalitarian plantations by snowballing restrictions on individual expression — usually arising from a sincere conviction to stop speech that some decent folks find repellent. Anyone wanting the right to voice politically incorrect views is considered to be defending the indefensible.

The root of censorship is a lack of faith in ordinary people.


But, as for leftists and liberals afraid of Elon Musk freeing Twitter to allow internet content they find injurious, who’s a better filter for what you read: big tech, the state, or you? Why entrust others to be nannies for your mind? As Jefferson declared, “We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” So fight bad speech with your own informed judgment and intelligent replies.

Contrary to what Orwell’s 1984 implied, it’s precisely the modern flowering of the means of mass communication that has empowered more people than ever to stand tall for truth and freedom, making it harder for dictators to keep their citizens ignorant and oppressed. Witness the fall of the cruel communist tyrannies of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, the liberalization of post-Maoist China, and recent exciting liberation movements, even in a Muslim theocracy such as Iran.

The root of censorship is a lack of faith in ordinary people since the censor is a sincere but arrogant elitist, “idealistically” bent on saving the rest of us from our own ignorant, depraved selves. Liberal Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis recognized this when he observed:

Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.

C.S. Lewis, considered a conservative, judged the phenomenon with even more precision:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

There’s never a dearth of fervent ideologues and purists, secular and religious alike, eager to pounce on any deviation from their enlightened orthodoxy, and always under the guise of protecting morality, public safety, and everything decent. But the censor’s work is never done and, since he secretly lacks confidence in the currency of his own ideas, he tries to stifle all opposition. As Joe Sobran observed: “If a would-be censor could express himself so well, he’d have no need, or urge, to censor. He’d be content to oppose words with better words. Censorship is a confession of failure . . . [A]ll the qualities such people tend to lack [include]: candor, humor, self-confidence, and self-respect.”

This typifies the speech cops, who are true totalitarians, seeking what the censors sought in 1984. As Orwell explained, “It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all, and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought . . . should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.”


  1. JdL

    The points made here deserve to be made more often: the urge to censor is born of weakness and its attendant fear. Its practitioners are lacking in self-respect, and for that reason alone, if no other, are writing a script in which they deserve no respect.

  2. Robert H Miller

    On November 3 Elon Musk, Twitter’s new CEO, announced the suspension of the New York Times’ Twitter account for disseminating fake news. His evidence? A 1904 NYT article that declared black people an evolutionary dead end and a 1939 NYT article that attributed the beginning of WWII to Poland’s invasion of Germany. So much for the “newspaper of record”.

    I love Musk’s sense of humor and comeuppance…but this move is “censorship” nonetheless (in quotes because, technically, only governments can censor). Still, the schadenfreude I experienced when I heard the news was delightful.

    1. Michael F.S.W. Morrison

      Not many years later, The New York Times ran an editorial that showed there could never be space travel … because there was nothing to push against!
      Since Musk obviously knows more about space travel than does The New York Times, I believe banning that rag makes perfect sense.
      (Besides, Mr. Miller, I bet you remember that [fake] ad showing Fidel Castro declaring “I got my job through The New York Times.”)

  3. Nemo

    Twitter is a privately-held company that should be free to follow whichever moderation practices they think will maximize their user base and advertising income. People have the legal right to make any arguments they want to, but they do not have a right to force anyone else to listen to those arguments, or the right to force any particular private forum to publish their words. No one would say that Walmart has an obligation to keep letting someone into their stores who invariably ends up shouting racial slurs or overt Nazi slogans and making all the other customers’ experiences miserable. If Elon Musk believes that a different moderation practice will increase company income (and he better have a plan for that, given the debt he has loaded onto the company), then he now has an opportunity to try. But that is not a victory of any sort for “free speech”, it’s just a shift in corporate strategy.

    Similarly if advertisers vote with their dollars by moving resources away from Twitter to other platforms they find more promising, that is not some sort of attack on “free speech”, just like it is not an attack on free speech to boycott the products of those companies if you disapprove of their decisions. Libertarians have long held that free speech includes speech conveyed through economic decision making. Why abandon that now?

  4. David

    Since, as various lawsuits have brought to light, much of Twitter’s pre-Musk censorship was done at the behest of various federal government officials and agencies, not excluding the White House, one can’t really say that all this censorship was just a matter of private business decisions and had nothing to do with violating constitutional protections of freedom of speech. Contary to the implications of Nemo’s comment.

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