“Bring back the Babylon Bee!”. Who is this Babylon Bee and why is it coming back?
The self described Christian satirical site had been banned since March for refusing to delete a tweet naming the assistant secretary for health under the Biden administration, Rachel Levine, its “Man of the Year.” Levine is a transgender woman, and the tweet violated a 2018 rule prohibiting Twitter users from targeting transgender people by referring to them by the name or gender they used before transitioning (Zakrzewski et al, 2022). However, as of the 18th of November 2022, Babylon Bee is back on twitter, reinstated by none other than Elon Musk.
The recent and almost dystopian takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk has shocked many. A 44 billion dollar buyout. Widespread layoffs and demands that employees pledge to work ‘hardcore’ hours. The accounts of Donald Trump, Kanye West and Jordan Peterson reinstated, along with nearly all those that were suspended for falling foul of old Twitter’s rules on abuse and hate speech (Malik, 2022). Why has the infamous billionaire decided to wage a crusade on such a popular platform with over 396 million global users? A self proclaimed free speech ‘absolutist’, Musk has stoked a fiery and polarising debate. I am led to enquire why Musk has taken this radical action towards free speech policy and what could have inspired him to do so.
What is the controversy on free speech?
Firstly, let's take a look at how free speech came into being. In the US, the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights protects the freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religious expression, and the right to a free press against government restriction (Tomar, 2022). It is one of the oldest, cherished and most frequently cited in the US constitution. Furthermore, the Universal Declaration of Human rights proclaimed by the United Nations general assembly in 1948 recognised freedom of expression as a “fundamental human right that should be universally protected” (Brown, 2021). However, the right to free speech does not come without some restriction- in some constitutions, it is recognised that freedom is not an unrestricted right. The European Convention on Human Rights, adopted in 1950 stated a caveat that free speech could be restricted on the grounds to protect others (Brown, 2021). Different interpretations on free speech can often lead to disagreements about how and to what extent the right can be exercised.
These different interpretations and importantly the consequences of free speech often form the basis of the controversy. In particular, recent debates have centred on issues such as the role of ‘cancel culture’, ‘no platforming’ and free speech in universities. ‘Cancel culture’ refers to a social climate in which a person or organisation is “likely to be ostracised in response to a perceived wrongdoing”, while ‘no platforming’ refers to the practice of denying someone the opportunity to speak in a political debate or forum (Brown, 2021, no pagination). Free speech laws protect a person’s right to express something. However, it does not protect the speaker from the consequences of their speech. The debate on free speech often centres around harmful speech which provokes a response in the public realm. One side of this debate states that free speech should be unrestricted, even if it is controversial or offensive as this is essentially the foundation of democracy. On the other side of this debate stands those who view certain forms of speech as inherently destructive, and will employ activism to silence and ostracise offending speakers
With Musk’s takeover of Twitter, he has indicated a complete turnover in Twitter’s moderation, censorship and speech policies. He is a fierce advocate of “speaking freely within the bounds of law”, but has moved erratically to undermine the work that Twitter has put in to protect all its users. His fierce criticism of the company’s previous leaders have seemed to encourage a wide range of anonymous twitter accounts to rampantly post hate speech. For example, one tweet read:
“Elon now controls twitter. Unleash the racial slurs. K---S AND N-----S,” said one account, using slurs for Jews and Black people. Another said, “I can freely express how much I hate n-----s … now, thank you elon (Harwell et al, 2022).
With the freefall of racial slurs and bigotry, Musk’s takeover of twitter symbolises an attempt to reclaim absolutist free speech, but at what cost?
Should free speech be restricted?
The fundamental principle of free speech centres around the notion of ‘truth seeking’. To understand this, we must refer to John Stuart Mill and the ‘Marketplace of Ideas’. The ‘Marketplace of ideas’ states that free speech is necessary in the search for truth because ideas can be offered up in a ‘marketplace’ where they can be expressed, criticised or rejected. Therefore, the widest ranges of facts, opinion and ideas are justified to be expressed under the principle that this is all in search of new knowledge. It is up to us to reject the knowledge that we dictate to be false. Oftentimes, defenders of free speech or free speech ‘absolutists’ argue that “controversial, offensive, and potentially hateful ideas should be met with debate, academic inquiry, and intellectual rigour” (Tomar, 2022, no pagination). Some argue that a form of extreme “political correctness”-the policing of thoughts, ideas, and speech through public and social pressure-is counter-democratic (Tomar, 2022). It is believed that if we were to restrict speech, we are advocating for counter- democratic values.
However, I believe it is valid to say that not all speech should be protected, especially in the context of hate speech. In most constitutions, it is recognised that speech can be restricted if it causes harm. Controversially, the First Amendment maintains that all speech should be protected. This law polarises opinions, especially when instances of hate speech proliferate. The ban and the subsequent return of the Christian satirical site, Babylon Bee, epitomises this dispute.
I am going to argue that restrictions on speech can exist on the condition that 1) it causes harm and 2) it does not contribute to the truth. However, to ascertain what restrictions on free speech can exist, it is important to define what constitutes as harm and what constitutes as offence. As these terms are often misrepresented in the media, this article will endeavour to define the difference between harm and offence and argue that the condition of harm satisfies some restriction on free speech.
Harm is defined by Joel Feinburg as “a setback to the interests” of a person. Interests are a person’s stake in certain matters, such that their life goes better or worse depending on how these matters develop” (Feinburg quoted in Bell, 2021, p.165). I find this definition to be too narrow but conversely, Piers Turner's definition that “harm is a negative consequence for others” (Piers quoted in Bell, 2021, p.166) to be too broad. Instead, harm is argued to reside in the “objective state of a person” (Bell, 2021, p.166), which refers to the idea that harm can reside in a person's being, affecting their livelihoods and the way they see themselves. Offence is a subjective experience, dependent on the reaction of the person to a situation. Harm, on the other hand, can interfere with the normal functioning of a person.
How then can speech induce harm that interferes with the functioning of a person? Firstly, harm is not only understood to be a physical phenomenon, but includes mental distress as well. Post- traumatic stress disorder and chronic headaches can be caused by repeated verbal attacks. Therefore, offence can cause harm. However, these intense repercussions relate to prolonged, repetitive and possibly intensive harm. In most cases, speech is deployed as an impersonal attack, targeting a group of people either with shared beliefs, motivations, religion and so on.
Theoretically, speech is open to anyone, but hate speech, more often that not, is targeted towards a marginalised demographic. Groups that are poorer, marginalised and generally less well off are unable to express themselves as freely as a counterpart who has more privilege, either socially, politically or economically. Whilst many advocates of absolute free speech maintain that all viewpoints should be deliberated with intellectual rigour, this is hardly the case in reality. Most of the time, hate speech or offensive speech has little intent of hearing what those targeted have to say. Therefore, the nature of hate speech promotes an unequal balance of power which firstly, does not contribute to truth seeking and secondly, can cause harm.
Hate speech can cause harm by contributing to a climate where it becomes normalised to discriminate against an already marginalised group which can affect the way these groups are understood, perceived and treated in society. This can contribute to the “oppressive system of unfair discrimination in employment, exclusion from housing and educational opportunities, police violence and mass incarceration, etc” (Bell, 2021, p.171), which causes harm. A chilling example is in a video of a pro-Trump parade in Florida in which a supporter of former president Donald Trump in a golf cart yells out "white power!" . On Sunday, Trump approvingly retweeted the video before clambering in his own golf cart for yet another 18 holes. "Thank you to the great people of The Villages," Trump commented alongside the tweet. "The Radical Left Do Nothing Democrats will Fall in the Fall. Corrupt Joe is shot. See you soon!!!" (Hemmer, 2020). This single tweet (now deleted), promotes a racist rhetoric where it is seemingly okay to promote ‘white power’ suggestive of movements such as the Ku Klux Klan and other racist ideologies. The danger of proliferation of such comments is that this could cause an environment where it becomes normalised to discriminate and support hateful ideologies.
The debate of free speech is a polarising one, framed by staunch voices on each end of the opposition. The return of Babylon Bee marks a change in the regulations of free speech policy in Twitter which could potentially undermine a regime built over a decade to protect vulnerable communities. This article has discussed the origins of free speech and how with the rise of ‘cancel culture’, ‘no platforming’ and the intense growth in social media use have affected the debate on free speech. The discussion of ideas and opinions operates in a completely different framework than what it did 20 years ago, and therefore, our policies should reflect that. With the analysis of hate speech and the condition of harm, I do believe that restrictions on speech should exist. Hate speech does not have a purpose for truth seeking, and neither does it contribute to an intellectual debate. There is a distinction between hate speech and diverse opinions, and as a society, we should remain tolerant and kind to one another. We have to remember who hateful speech really hurts, which ultimately, is the people we need to protect the most.
Bell, M. (2021), “John Stuart Mill's Harm Principle and Free Speech: Expanding the Notion of Harm”, Utilitas, 33 (2), pp.162-179
Brown, T. (2021), “Freedom of speech: challenges and the role of public, private and civil society sectors in upholding rights”, Available at: https://lordslibrary.parliament.uk/freedom-of-speech-challenges-and-the-role-of-public-private-and-civil-society-sectors-in-upholding-rights/
Harwell, D, Lorenz, T and Zakrzewski, C. (2022), “Racist tweets quickly surface after Musk closes Twitter deal”, Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2022/10/28/musk-twitter-racist-posts/
Hemmer, N. (2020), “Trump’s white power retweet part of a racist Twitter ventriloquism act”, Available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/trump-s-white-power-retweet-part-racist-twitter-ventriloquism-act-ncna1232601
Malik, N. (2022), “Elon Musk’s Twitter is fast proving that free speech at all costs is a dangerous fantasy”, Available at:
Tomar, D. (2020), “Controversial Topic: Censorship and Freedom of Speech”, Available at: https://academicinfluence.com/inflection/controversial-topics/controversial-topic-censorship-freedom-of-speech
Zakrzewski, C., Siddiqui, F and Menn, J. (2022), “Musk’s ‘free speech’ agenda dismantles safety work at Twitter, insiders say”, Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2022/11/22/elon-musk-twitter-content-moderations/