Elon Musk claims to support free speech, but his history shows otherwise

Musk's support for free speech appears to be limited to his own or those of his supporters and promoters.

Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, is buying Twitter, the social media site he has used for years to promote his interests and construct his public image. Musk is the world's wealthiest person on paper.

When the acquisition was announced Monday, Mr. Musk said, "Free speech is the backbone of a healthy democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters crucial to the survival of humanity are argued."

For years, Musk has portrayed himself as a First Amendment and free speech advocate, defending himself in a defamation lawsuit after calling a critic a "pedo guy" (Musk won), and arguing that the SEC infringed on his rights in a settlement agreement reached and revised after the agency charged him with securities fraud in 2018.

However, as The Atlantic, Bloomberg, and others have pointed out, Musk's support for free speech appears to be limited to his own or that of his supporters and promoters. According to TechDirt, Musk has a poor knowledge of free speech and even less comprehension of content regulation.

Speech of the workers

Musk is a tyrant when it comes to his employees' right to free expression.

When Tesla lay off employees under his leadership, the company required them to sign separation agreements that included a robust non-disparagement clause with no time limit. These types of deals are usual in the tech business, but Musk is far from a free-speech zealot.

According to a draft of a Tesla agreement leaked with CNBC by a former Tesla employee put off in 2018 (who did not sign the agreement):

"You undertake not to disparage Tesla, its products, or the Company's officers, directors, employees, shareholders and agents, affiliates and subsidiaries in any way that could hurt their business, business reputation, or personal reputation."

Tesla forced laid-off employees to retain specifics about the separation agreement to themselves, their lawyer, accountant, and close family—not even other employees—in the same contract.

"You will keep the details of this Agreement in the utmost confidence and will not publish or reveal them in any way," the agreement stated. "You agree not to divulge the provisions of this Agreement to any present or former Company employee or contractor, in particular and without limitation."

Tesla, like most large corporations, requires employees to sign an arbitration agreement when they start working for them. That implies that in order to speak freely in court, where their words will become part of the public record, workers must first get a judge's exemption from the arbitration agreement.

Hundreds of Tesla employees have complained of racist, sexist, and other sorts of harassment, discrimination, and unsafe working conditions while under Musk's leadership. Many people have also claimed retaliation as a result of speaking out about concerns.

These charges have recently come to light as a result of a newly revealed EEOC investigation and a complaint filed by the California Civil Rights Commission, although the corporation has a lengthy history.

Karl Hansen, a former Tesla security employee, filed a complaint with the US Securities and Exchange Commission in August 2018, alleging that he was wrongfully fired from his job as an investigator at the company's battery plant in Sparks, Nevada, after raising concerns about the theft of tens of millions of dollars in raw materials. Tesla disguised the theft from shareholders, he claimed, despite the fact that it was a significant sum of money at the time.

Former Tesla employee Stephen Henkes claimed in November 2020 that he was fired from his job on Aug. 3, 2020, after raising safety concerns internally and filing formal complaints with government agencies after the company failed to fix and communicate accurately with customers over what he described as unacceptable fire risks in the company's solar installations. Both the CPSC and the SEC are looking into Henkes' allegations.

Press freedom

Musk has endeavored to exert control over what journalists, bloggers, analysts, and other researchers say about his companies, their products, and himself on numerous occasions.

On an earnings call in 2018, the Tesla CEO famously chastised and cut off an analyst. "Excuse me, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please After an inquiry regarding his company's capital requirements, the CEO stated, "Boring, bonehead questions are not cool." The company has just reported its worst-ever quarterly loss. Musk eventually apologized and now occasionally avoids speaking during Tesla earnings calls.

Musk and Tesla have also requested that reporters sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) or show story drafts to the corporation for approval prior to publication.

He has boldly requested that his supporters modify his Wikipedia biography. "It's been years since I've glanced at my wiki. It's completely ridiculous!" Musk sent out a tweet. "By the way, please remove the word 'investor.'" "I don't invest at all," he explained. His hordes of supporters dutifully edited the page to downplay his investments.

Musk is even offended when Tesla fans write about the company's flaws on blogs.

After the site — which has turned into more of an electric vehicle blog in recent years — published a piece with the title Tesla is charging owners $1,500 for gear they already paid for, Tesla stopped inviting some Electrek staff to corporate events at his request. The narrative was truthful, if humiliating to Musk, because it addressed his company's failure to provide autonomous vehicle technology to customers who had been waiting for a long time.

Customers' comments

Musk and Tesla have also attempted to silence customers, with mixed results. Tesla, for example, used to require consumers to sign non-disclosure agreements as a condition of having their vehicles fixed.

In 2021, Tesla requested that customers agree not to criticize FSD Beta, an experimental driver assistance software package that some Tesla owners might try out with their own cars and unpaid time.

Tesla asked drivers to "keep your experiences in the program confidential" and not to "share any information about this program with the public" in an agreement sent to them earlier this year for FSD Beta access. This included taking screenshots, creating blog posts, and posting to social media sites.

According to a copy of the full agreement obtained by CNBC, Tesla specified Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, TikTok, Snapchat, and YouTube as sites where owners should not share information about their use of FSD Beta.

Tesla's requirements for admission to FSD Beta were eventually loosened by Musk, who claimed that no one was adhering to the agreement anyhow. However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) launched an investigation into the practice.

"Given that NHTSA relies on consumer reports as an important source of information in evaluating potential safety defects," NHSA wrote to Tesla in October 2021, "any agreement that may prevent or dissuade participants in the early access beta release program from reporting safety concerns to NHTSA is unacceptable."

Meanwhile, Tesla has sued consumers in China who have complained about safety issues with their vehicles, as well as a Chinese social media influencer for defamation. Xiaogang Xuezhang, a YouTube star, produced a video showing problems with Tesla's and other automakers' autonomous emergency braking systems.

Redaction

Tesla and Musk's lawyers have also made confidential treatment requests for legal and business filings in the United States on a regular basis.

Tesla tried to hide a variety of things from the public eye, including vehicle safety data that federal auto regulators requested as part of a routine investigation, and business data Tesla used to apply for tax breaks from the California Alternative Energy and Advanced Transportation Financing Authority.

Tesla and Musk's lawyers have also attempted to keep transcripts and recordings of employee and executive testimony hidden from the Delaware Chancery court and other courts.

For me, freedom of expression is essential

Musk has clearly utilized his and his companies' right to free speech.

He recently stated that SpaceX's Starlink satellite internet service would keep Russian news sources online, despite pleas from unnamed governments to stop them in the wake of Putin's barbaric invasion of Ukraine.

"Some countries (not Ukraine) have directed Starlink to restrict Russian news outlets. We won't do it unless we're forced to," Musk stated. "I'm sorry for being a free speech zealot."

Musk is also challenging an administrative court order that says he must remove a tweet from his feed because it infringes on workers' rights. "Nothing stopping Tesla crew at our vehicle plant from voting union," the tweet claimed in 2018. If they wanted, they could do it tomorrow. But why should you pay union dues and give up stock options if you don't have to?"

Despite the settlement agreement he reached with the SEC when it accused him with civil securities fraud, Musk has ignored the requirement to have a securities law expert pre-approve some of his tweets before posting them.

Even though a judge had ordered him to have some of his tweets pre-approved by securities law compliance experts at Tesla if they contained information likely to damage Tesla's stock price, Musk told Lesley Stahl in a 2018 interview that his tweets are not supervised in general. "Hello, First Amendment," he stated during the interview. "Freedom of expression is essential..."

Musk's free speech absolutism is just aspirational, if he actually thinks that.

Musk, on the other hand, can secure his capacity to use Twitter to promote his companies, assets, and himself in the way he wants to be seen by dominating the social network.

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