LTE: On free speech and censorship

Norman C. Wang, Op-Ed Contributor

Jackson Griffith recently addressed Elon Musk’s evolving role in Twitter, following Musk’s acquisition of 9.2% of its shares. He rightly stated, “Musk has been critical of Twitter’s moderation policies, even going so far as to say Twitter’s policies undermine democracy.” In contrast, Griffith believed, “Twitter’s current policies do an effective job in keeping the platform free of misinformation and harmful practices while also providing an avenue to free speech for all.” Several points should be considered.

First, a major reason for Musk’s interest in Twitter is precisely because he does not feel it is functioning as a platform for free speech. In his letter to Twitter’s chairman of the board, he wrote, “I invested in Twitter as I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe, and I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy. However, since making my investment I now realize the company will neither thrive nor serve this societal imperative in its current form.” 

In a 2020 interview with MIT Technology Review, Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal  suggested as much. Agrawal stated “our role is not to be bound by the First Amendment … Where our role is particularly emphasized is who can be heard.” 

Second, some of what is labeled as misinformation now may become acceptable, if not the standard, in the future. The greatest purveyor of misinformation in his time was Galileo Galilei, who was opposed by the Catholic Church because he supported the Copernican heliocentric theory of the solar system. 

As recently as last month, Twitter suspended University of Oxford Prof. Carl Heneghan’s Twitter account, who studies and teaches evidence-based medicine. Heneghan’s transgression was sharing an article that questioned the accuracy of COVID-19 deaths in the United Kingdom and cited a study of which Heneghan was a part. Heneghan said he received an email from Twitter accusing him of “violating the policy of spreading misleading and potentially harmful information related to COVID-19.” The ban was lifted the next day, and Twitter admitted a mistake, but censorship concerns are evident.

Third, Griffith wrote “Many far-right Twitter users are already lobbying Musk to reinstate Trump’s Twitter account,” in reference to former President Donald Trump, who was permanently suspended from the social media platform on Jan. 8, 2021. However, it was not merely those on the “far-right” who were concerned about Twitter’s ban on Trump.

The American Civil Liberties Union, a nonprofit organization founded in 1920, has been on the forefront of many liberal causes in its more than a century of advocacy. Following Trump’s permanent Twitter suspension, former ACLU Attorney David Goldberger told Newsweek, “Of course it’s censorship, but it’s not government censorship and that’s the dilemma.” Recently, Goldberger wrote, “Liberals are leaving the First Amendment behind.” 

Twitter is not a government institution and therefore is not bound by freedom of speech protections guaranteed by the First Amendment. Twitter’s Corporate Governance Guidelines state “it is the principal duty of the Board to exercise its powers in accordance with its fiduciary duties to the Company and in a manner it reasonably believes to be in the best interests of the Company and its stockholders.” In other words, a publicly-traded company with a market capitalization of more than $30 billion, Twitter can ban any speech that does not align with its corporate objectives. 

Northwestern, as a private university, is also not bound by the First Amendment. In 1992, California passed the Leonard Law that applies First Amendment protections to students at private educational institutions. A similar law does not exist in Illinois. Thus, NU students have far fewer legal protections on freedom of speech than students at other Big Ten Conference universities, which are publicly funded. 

In 2015, The University of Chicago, a private university, released the Chicago Principles (also known as the Chicago Statement) as a commitment to free speech. An excerpt states, “In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.”

The Chicago Principles have been officially endorsed by more than 80 universities. The first was Princeton University, which adopted them in April 2015. NU has not endorsed them. Yet, retaliation against NU students by faculty and/or administrators for social media posts, op-eds in The Daily or even challenging scientific data in classrooms can certainly occur.

Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Clearly, Elon Musk does not feel Twitter upholds standards for freedom of speech expressed by the First Amendment and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Members of the NU community should examine their own position on what has been recognized as a fundamental human right.

— Norman C. Wang (McCormick ’94, Feinberg ’98) 

If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.