Elon Musk’s X sues California over law meant to tackle hate speech on social media

Elon Musk is seen wearing a white shirt and dark suit jacket. The X owner has hit out after several groups and LGBTQ+ activists have warned of rising levels of hate speech on the platform

Elon Musk’s X is suing California over legislation that requires companies to explain how they police disinformation, hate speech and extremism. 

X, the platform known in the not-so-distant-past as Twitter, alleged the new California law violates its free speech rights under the First Amendment because it “compels companies” to “engage in speech against their will” and “impermissibly interferes with the constitutionally-protected editorial judgements” of X. 

The lawsuit claimed the legislation, known as Assembly Bill 587 (AB 587), pressures companies like X to “remove, demonetise or deprioritise constitutionally-protected speech that the state deems undesirable or harmful” and places an “unjustified and undue burden on social media companies”. 

By doing so, X argued California is “compelling social media companies to take public positions on controversial and politically-charged issues”, which it said is a “form of compelled speech in and of itself”.

AB 587, which was signed into law by governor Gavin Newsom last September, requires social media companies to post their terms of service online. 

Additionally, companies need to include details about how they define and moderate several categories of content including hate speech or racism; extremism or radicalisation; disinformation or misinformation; harassment; and foreign political interference. 

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They must also give details about automated content moderation, how they respond to users’ flagged content and how the flagged content is handled. 

California state assembly member Jesse Gabriel, the author of the bill, said that Elon Musk and X should have “no objection to this bill” if they have “nothing to hide”. 

“Elon Musk just filed a lawsuit challenging AB 587, a bipartisan social media transparency bill that I authored that was signed into law last year by Gavin Newsom,” Gabriel said. “If X has nothing to hide, then they should have no objection to this bill.”

Elon Musk has threatened to sue groups that say hate speech and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric is rising on X

Musk has branded himself as a “free-speech absolutist” ever since he bought the social media platform in October for $44bn. 

As the app’s owner for nearly a year, Musk loosened the rules around hate speech and granted “general amnesty” to accounts previously banned. This included accounts banned for antisemitism and transphobia

LGBTQ+ activists and civil rights groups – including the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), Media Matters and GLAAD – have said that the volume of hate speech targeting the queer community and other marginalised groups has only increased in volume since Musk took over X. 

Despite these concerns, Elon Musk has denied that hate speech has increased under his leadership

In July, X sued the CCDH for allegedly violating the platform’s terms of service by collecting data for its analysis on hate speech. The platform said the research was “inflammatory, outrageous and false”

The watchdog denied Musk’s claims and said it was an attempt to “intimidate those who have the courage to advocate against incitement, hate speech and harmful content online”. 

This week, Musk threatened to sue the ADL for defamation after it repeatedly warned of a rise in anti-semitism on X. 

Musk claimed the nonprofit was “trying to kill this platform” because it reported on the rising hate speech on X. He also alleged the AFL was “falsely accusing” him and the platform of being antisemitic. 

ADL’s chief executive Jonathan Greenblatt said it was “profoundly disturbing” to see Musk spend his time “engaging with a highly toxic, antisemitic campaign”.

A graphic composed of a greyscale drawing of Elon Musk and the logo of X, his social media platform formally known as Twitter. Several groups and LGBTQ+ activists have warned of rising levels of hate speech on the platform
Elon Musk has hit out at the Anti-Defamation League and the Center for Countering Digital Hate after both groups reported on rising levels of hate speech on X since he took over. (Getty)

In a lengthy statement on Wednesday (6 September), the #StopToxicTwitter coalition – which is composed of over 60 civil rights and civil society groups, including the ADL and CCDH – condemned Musk’s attacks and said he’s the reason for business problems at X. 

“That the wealthiest man on the planet is using his money, influence and even legal action to threaten and silence critics, including our coalition partners, is reprehensible,” said Jessica J González, co-CEO of media watchdog Free Press and a leader of the #StopToxicTwitter coalition. 

The coalition has campaigned to ensure that corporations don’t buy ads on X as long as Musk refuses to meaningfully tackle hate speech, harassment and other harmful behaviour on the platform. 

Angelo Carusone, Media Matters chairman and CEO, called Musk’s “professed commitment to free speech” as “nothing more than a fig leaf flapping in the wind”. 

“For Musk, it’s always been about morphing Twitter into a free for all that enables extremists and promotes his red-pilled worldview,” Carusone said. 

“Rarely does a day go by where Musk does not further expose himself as a volatile and petty hypocrite.”