The State of Free Speech

Conor Friedersdorf on Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover and his hopes and fears for American freedom of expression

Elon Musk in thought
Elon Musk at a SpaceX press conference in Texas in February 2022. (Jim Watson / AFP / Getty)

This is an edition of The Atlantic Daily, a newsletter that guides you through the biggest stories of the day, helps you discover new ideas, and recommends the best in culture. Sign up for it here.

One year ago, our staff writer Conor Friedersdorf started the newsletter Up for Debate, a forum that gives the ideas of media commentators and Atlantic readers equal weight and aims to represent the full range of the political spectrum. I emailed Conor to find out what he’s learned from this experiment and his take on the state of free speech in America today.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.


Speaking Freely

Kelli Korducki: Since taking over Twitter, Elon Musk has cited “free speech” to justify restoring banned accounts, such as Donald Trump’s. Musk also claims that Apple scaling back its ad buys with the company is a violation of free speech. What do you make of Musk’s use of the term?

Conor Friedersdorf: At their best, Elon Musk’s defenses of free speech are smart and incisive. I share his belief that before his takeover of Twitter, the social-media platform was sometimes overly [prone to censorship], as in its treatment of The Babylon Bee, a satire site [whose account was suspended after it posted a tweet that misgendered a U.S. government official]. Other times, Musk invokes free speech in ways that muddy matters more than clarifying them. For example, if Apple pulls its advertising from Twitter, that does not suggest that the company hates free speech, as Musk implied. One question I have is whether China will be able to exploit Musk’s stakes in Tesla and SpaceX to coerce him into making Twitter less friendly to free speech in Asia.

Kelli: You’re active on Twitter. What do you value about social media, and what do you dislike?

Conor: My favorite aspect of social media is encountering people and perspectives that I wouldn’t otherwise. My least favorite aspects of social media are the people who justify casual cruelty to those with whom they disagree about politics, the false accusations of bad faith, and the ways that the public nature of the conversations tempts participants to conduct them as performance rather than interpersonal engagement, which makes many encounters much less constructive.

Kelli: You intended Up for Debate to be a more productive space for conversation than social media. What have you learned from publishing the newsletter?

Conor: I’ve been heartened by the correspondence I get each week, because it is a constant reminder that many thoughtful people are out there thinking for themselves.

Kelli: What trends around free speech are you concerned about? What trends give you hope?

Conor: I am hopeful about the prospects of free speech in the United States, where long-standing cultural traits, First Amendment jurisprudence, and digital technology are all formidable bulwarks against censoriousness. But even in the United States, I am concerned by survey data that suggest younger generations are less liberal and tolerant––that they [may be] more authoritarian in their psychology––on some free-speech issues. And I am also concerned that Western corporations hoping to profit in commerce with authoritarian countries will transgress against free-speech values in order to protect their place in foreign markets.

Kelli: What kinds of voices do you think are getting lost in the conversations about issues facing the world today?

Conor: Although I could muse on underrepresented ideologies, I actually think the most consequential voices lost to the typical American belong to people who don’t speak English, and I hope that in the near future, advancing artificial intelligence will improve the quality and speed of translation in a way that breaks down language barriers as never before.

Further Reading:

  • Reflecting on the backlash against Dave Chappelle over material critics called transphobic, Conor used Up for Debate to explore the “authoritarian impulse to punish ‘bad’ jokes.”
  • In September, Up for Debate readers weighed in on calls to defund the police in America.
  • “There has never been a golden age when anyone could say what they wanted without consequence,” Adam Serwer wrote after the violent attack on the novelist Salman Rushdie in August.
  • Hannah Giorgis argued in 2020 that those who conflate criticism with censorship undermine the principle of free speech.
  • David French wrote in April that speech codes and book bans are forms of censorship that are “inconsistent with American pluralism.”

Today’s News
  1. The House approved legislation to avert a rail strike. The bill now goes to the Senate, where leaders have said they plan to approve it quickly.
  2. House Democrats chose Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York as the new leader of the party, making him the first Black person to lead a major party in a chamber of Congress.
  3. Jerome Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, announced that the Fed is preparing to slow its interest-rate hikes, while also noting that it has not seen “clear progress” on lowering inflation.

Dispatches

Explore all of our newsletters here.


Evening Read
A photograph of an old diary with cursive writing on top of a blurred photo of a woman sitting in a house
(Sally MacNamara Ivey; Getty; The Atlantic)

A Pocket-Size Time Machine

By Lauren Silverman

Between the two of us, my father and I have more than 50 diaries. Mine are a wealth of embarrassments: elementary-school poems that rhyme first base with corn flakes, a photo of an ex–best friend with the edges burned in some teenage rage, gushing during college about first love and infidelity, and more recently, a list of baby names that I’m relieved were never chosen. (Was I really considering Amapola?) My father’s diaries, which date back to the 1960s, are a mash-up of half-finished watercolors, to-do lists, and reflections on addiction. As humiliating and incoherent as most of these diaries are, I cannot part with them. And so they sit there, stacked in banker’s boxes in my childhood attic, collecting dust and rat poop.

My diary collection is dwarfed by Sally MacNamara Ivey’s. She has read more than 10,000 unpublished diaries and spent 35 years collecting them.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic


Culture Break
A still from Barbarian showing a woman on a porch in front of a door
A still from Barbarian. (20th Century Studios)

Read. The Generation,” a short story by Hernan Diaz that follows a 13-year-old through a grim dystopian future.

Watch. Barbarian, a horror movie that’s truly worth the hype.

Play our daily crossword.


P.S.

Rachel Kushner’s 2013 novel, The Flamethrowers, might not necessarily leap to mind as a key work on the importance of free expression. The novel’s 20-something protagonist travels in the late 1970s between New York City’s downtown scene and a tumultuous Italy, pursuing art, sex, and fast motorcycles. She is, by her own description, a “person to whom certain things happened” who stumbles upon scenes of political disturbance with life-or-death stakes and, in spite of herself, gets absorbed into action.

When I first read the book, I was struck more by the sexiness of its parallel settings than by its political substance. But that’s what makes Kushner’s book so effective: The Flamethrowers captures the electricity of ideological awakening and what it means to be an active participant in society.

—Kelli

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.