April 27, 2022

No, Elon Musk is NOT a champion of free speech…

The biggest news headline in tech—or at least, the biggest one for those of us who don’t actually follow news about tech—is the recent purchase of Twitter by SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Musk has said that he wants to take Twitter private because it is not living up to its promise as a platform for free speech. “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” Musk tweeted. So you’d think that this guy is a real free speech defender, wouldn’t you? Well, maybe he is, as long as that free speech isn’t directed at him, his investments, or his products.

Just ask Jeremy Clarkson and the BBC. Back in the 2000s, Clarkson, along with Richard Hammond and James May, was an original host of the much-loved television series Top Gear. The show featured (and still features) auto reviews, comedy, and celebrity interviews, both of the latter centering on cars. The discussion ranged from being about high-end-but-still-imaginable vehicles to “super cars” that are strictly the province of the rich and famous. But the main thing that you always found was that Clarkson never pulled any punches. He told his audience (and anyone else who would listen) exactly what he thought, and he didn’t care who he upset in doing it. (On quite a few occasions, he upset the BBC.) But one of the people he upset was Elon Musk.

In 2008, Clarkson reviewed the Tesla Roadster for an episode of Top Gear, and he had a few withering things to say. Namely, Clarkson reported that the car’s battery power tended to run out after just 55 miles, rather than the 200 mile range then claimed by Tesla. He also noted at the time that “it is not a quick job to charge it up again.” And finally, it showed Clarkson and others pushing the Roadster, which had run out of charge, into a hangar being used as a garage and off the test track. So, with a negative review from an outspoken reviewer being aired on the BBC, what’s a free-speech enthusiast to do?

Well, if you’re Elon Musk, you sue. Twice. And then you appeal the dismissal of your lawsuit.

Musk and Tesla never collected anything from the BBC or Clarkson, but they did cause Clarkson to swear off reviewing any Tesla auto until almost 10 years later on his subsequent show The Grand Tour. (Even then, he test drove the Tesla X with a full complement of lawyers in the backseat.) So Tesla’s investment in litigation effectively bought it a decade’s worth of silence from Clarkson. And this means that when Musk declares free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy and swears his allegiance to it, try taking it with a grain of salt. Clarkson can be blunt to the point of being boorish, but, if you actually respect free speech, you’re supposed to respect everyone’s free speech, including the ones who criticize you. Maybe having one guy declare himself the arbiter of how much freedom we all get isn’t the best idea, after all.