To Promote Viewpoint Diversity, Elon Musk Should Emulate Thomas Jefferson

By Julian Adorney
Julian Adorney
Julian Adorney
Julian Adorney is a Young Voices contributor. He’s written for FEE, Playboy, National Review, The Federalist, and blogs at The Empathetic Libertarian.
February 7, 2023Updated: February 7, 2023


To say that Elon Musk’s tenure at Twitter has been polarizing would be an understatement.

He bought Twitter at a time when the social media giant was actively putting its thumb on the scale of public discourse and seemingly punishing right-wing accounts. Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former head of trust and safety, compared the Trump White House to “actual Nazis.” In The Twitter Files, Bari Weiss reported that many Twitter employers “view him [Trump] as the leader of a terrorist group responsible for violence/deaths comparable to Christchurch shooter or Hitler and on that basis and on the totality of his Tweets, he should be de-platformed.”

Twitter banned right-wingers at the drop of a hat while letting far-leftists get away with openly racist tweets. The site throttled the account of Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, a Stanford professor of health policy and skeptic of the COVID-19 lockdowns, which had a dramatic impact on the course of the United States’ response to the pandemic.

Musk promised neutrality when he took over, claiming that he’s “fighting for free speech in America”; but his actions leave something to be desired. The Intercept reported that he’s been banning far-left accounts. Some of those accounts are actively violent and perhaps should have been banned years ago, but some seem to be serious researchers. He suspended a number of reporters who were critical of him, and then unsuspended them after a public outcry.

Musk has also made his disdain for the far-left ideology of wokeism clear. He said, “At its heart, wokeness is divisive, exclusionary, and hateful,” and that wokeness is “one of the biggest threats to modern civilization.” Agree or disagree that wokeness is bad, but Musk’s sentiments don’t exactly scream, “viewpoint diversity welcomed here.” His statements are especially concerning because, as The Intercept notes, he seems to be making content moderation decisions based on his own preferences. There’s a real concern that he’s simply replacing censorship by the left with censorship of the left.

It doesn’t have to be this way. If Musk is sincere about taking an organization that put its thumb on the scale of public discourse and turning it into a genuine town hall, he should look to the example of a man who did just that: Thomas Jefferson.

In 1798, U.S. President John Adams signed the Sedition Act, which made it a crime to, “write, print, utter or publish … any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States.” The law was a naked power grab. Adams’s party, the Federalists, were the ones enforcing the law; and they used it as a weapon to target their political opponents, the Republicans.

In “Free Speech: A History From Socrates to Social Media,” historian Jacob Mchangama notes that, “With very few exceptions, all those targeted by the Act were Republicans or opposed to Federalist policies, while Federalist newspapers were generally free to use hyperbole and invectives against Republicans.”

One hundred and twenty-six defendants were charged in accordance with the Sedition Act, including newspaper publishers and even a sitting Republican congressman. Thomas Jefferson himself, a Republican and Adams’s vice president, was investigated under the Act and had his mail intercepted.

When Jefferson won the presidential election in 1800, he was justifiably furious at the Federalist Party. The Sedition Act was set to expire the day he took office (more evidence the Federalists didn’t intend to play by their own rules and let their political opponents dictate their speech) and he could have rallied his majorities in Congress to extend the Act and give the Federalists a taste of their own medicine. Instead, he took the high road. He let the Act expire, and in his inaugural address, he made a stirring promise to honor the viewpoints of his political foes as they had not honored his own.

“We are all republicans: we are all federalists,” Jefferson said. “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union, or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated, where reason is left free to combat it.”

To be clear, Jefferson wasn’t perfect. Mchangama notes that he didn’t push for the federal government to investigate his political opponents, but he occasionally encouraged state governments to do so. Even so, his administration was night-and-day different from the prior Adams regime.

Jefferson’s willingness to (generally) walk the high road had lasting consequences. By eschewing tit-for-tat censorship, he helped the fledgling country to develop a strong respect for free speech and the First Amendment.

As Mchangama argues when describing Jefferson’s response to the Sedition Act, “the efforts of Madison, Jefferson, Hay, and other critics undoubtedly helped to develop a robust commitment to First Amendment ideals as well as to deepen the understanding of what that constitutional provision meant in both principle and practice.”

Lifting the partisan censorship of his predecessors and adopting a stated policy of viewpoint diversity helped Jefferson to create a genuine town square for public debate.

Musk said that he bought Twitter “because it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner without resorting to violence.”

That’s a noble vision. If he’s willing to change course and eschew politically or personally motivated content moderation, it might just become true.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.