Free Speech Morality

Modern challenges with regard to free speech

Below, some notes on three concepts/arguments related to free speech – concepts that I think have become either more relevant (thus important to understand) or more complicated in the last 10 or so years (thanks in large part to the rapid uptake of social media like Twitter).

“Censorship” and the right to free speech

xkcd say pretty much what I’d want to, so let’s start with them (remember to read the mouseover text).
I can't remember where I heard this, but someone once said that defending a position by citing free speech is sort of the ultimate concession; you're saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it's not literally illegal to express.

Private citizens and companies are perfectly entitled to refuse to broadcast your opinions. It’s no violation of your rights that a comment section gets closed, or that your comment is deleted from a blog.

If someone were to refuse you permission to comment, or delete a comment, this might reveal various unpleasant things about their judgement or character. It might be capricious, it might be rude, it might be cowardly.

But they have a right to publish what they like, whether they make the right choices (in your estimation) or not. You don’t have a right to be published on other people’s platforms.

(On a related note, I suspect I’ll soon be shutting comments down here on Synapses simply because, besides a few reliable folk, there’s little of value that gets added there. If you have anything to say on that topic, this might be your chance to do so.)

Offence & sensitivities

Certain expressions are legally proscribed – here in South Africa, for example, hate speech is going to get you into trouble. If you’re reading this from elsewhere, you might have similar laws.

Those laws could be poorly drafted, and they could even be nonsensical (to you, in that you think that “hate speech” shouldn’t exist as a legal category of speech, or that it shouldn’t be punishable.)

Ignore that issue for the moment. The issue I want to highlight is that there are a range of utterances or ideas that could offend people or simply create discomfort without meeting the threshold for hate speech (or any other relevant legal category of speech).

A recent case was the cancelled Oxford debate on abortion, that was meant to feature Brendan O’Neill and Tim Stanley. You can read their perspective on the cancellation of the debate by following the links in this piece by the President of the Cambridge Union, and I’d also recommend reading Isabel Hardman’s piece, as she makes some of the good points that O’Neill makes, but less hyperbolically and without being Brendan O’Neill.

The issue here is – how can one avoid the slippery slope whereby any claims of offence or sensitivity eventually become grounds for not expressing a view, while still being compassionate towards people who have legitimate sensitivities on various topics?

The one end of the spectrum is the classic Liberal position of asserting that we’re improved by allowing ourselves to hear things that make you uncomfortable – the truth wins out, we develop better arguments against falsehoods, and we might get to “toughen up” along the way.

But these things are all easy to say from a position of intellectual and material comfort, and less so when you’re the threatened group. So, there’s serious room for compassion, especially for Humanists like me. However, there’s a tension between these goals, and it’s one that’s difficult to resolve.

The unfettered free speech argument doesn’t automatically get the win, in my view, because of issue #3, namely:

The corn-dealer’s house is right next-door

Many folk who defend free speech refer to J.S. Mill’s On Liberty, and rightly so, as it makes a superb case for when speech should and shouldn’t be restricted. But it was written in in 1869, and it’s possible that perfectly reasonable arguments for then are not entirely reasonable for now – or that, if they are, they lead to rather different policy conclusions than was the case for Mill’s time. Take this passage from Chapter 3:

An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard.

There’s the problem in a nutshell: if you agree with Mill’s argument, give some thought to how we should implement the argument in terms of comment policies, Facebook and Twitter terms of use and the like.

Mill is talking about a mob of people who need to be riled up to the extent that they will set aside the time to make a plan, then congregate at someone’s house to protest. It takes serious affront to result in that sort of motivation, because you need to make an investment to lodge your protest.

Today, especially on something like Twitter, a ready-made mob of thousands can be assembled instantly. They might not even know you, or understand what you did “wrong”, because your misstep can get re-tweeted by someone influential, with everyone else simply jumping on a bandwagon.

Reading one abusive Tweet is no problem for most, but imagine reading hundreds of them, from people who would likely never have the courage to stand outside your door, shouting abuse as in Mill’s scenario above. If he thought that the mob outside your house should be controlled, and if you agree, should the social media mob also not be controlled?

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

12 replies on “Modern challenges with regard to free speech”

I don’t think that mobs are easily controlled. I’m an idealist and I would like to live in a society where speech is free as in absolutely free, and people have the presence of mind to disagree with each other without gathering pitchforks and chasing Frankenstein out of the town. But the joke is on me.

A good case study is the recent Muppet vs Puppet story. Regardless of the merits of each side, Muppet Hofmeyr was already stretched on a rack and tortured to confess. This may have been deserved, but the guy is losing sponsorships and by extension his livelihood over remarks made by a sanctimonious ‘libtard’. What was his crime? He merely spoke his mind and offended a whole bunch of people. Sure, they were ill-considered remarks, but the trial and jury by Puppet hardly had anything more substantial to offer.

How does one police muppet vs puppet? Or how does Woolworth’s protect themselves from becoming slacktivisit collateral damage? Who’s going to decide the merits of such cases? Mobs are clearly not equipped to do so and if the mob is large enough and irrational enough, there’s no blame that can be put on the mob.

Interesting article and debate. Helen Zille said no one has the right not to be offended . I tend to agree, especially when you “step into the ring” of sorts as in Twitter, or allowing comments on someone’s published articles. You always have the liberty or right not to engage, not to participate and continue an uneventfull life if that’s your desire. It’s a little bit like, I don’t like the game anymore , can’t change the rules and now wants to ban it or certain players. If it’s your own game, why yes, you can decide what the rules are and who can play.

On the point of “value” of comments. Who decides what is of value, and even if in that judgement, little are, is it enough justification to completely scrap it at the expense of the 1 or 2 that do? Many times I learn more, or gain more insight from the comments than from the article itself. But maybe this is what writers are afraid of ?

Yes, Zille (following Rushie, Fry, Pullman and Hitchens, off the top of head) has used that phrase. That doesn’t make it true, and more importantly, that doesn’t suggest this needs to be treated as a ‘rights’ issue at all. It might be wrong to cause certain forms of offence regardless of rights considerations.

On your second paragraph, in this case, I do.

What, in essence, is a “rights” issue, other than about what’s “right” or “wrong” ? This a debate with no “right” answer . Right for me is maybe wrong for you. Your political or religious views might be seen as “wrong” by others . Majority rules normally and historically. The internet has brought more freedom of expression than anything else before. Closing comments will discourage me from reading articles by self righteous writers not able to adjust to a new society.

One the one hand, there are rights, in the legal sense. These don’t always correlate with ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in the moral sense, as things like Apartheid amply demonstrate. A rights issue would be about the former.

This is a debate with a right answer (in the limited sense applicable to this website), in that it’s a subjective call that I get to make. On your website, you can do the same. This decision would not intrude on anyone’s rights.

Whether or not closing comments will discourage readership in general, rather than in anecdotal cases, is an empirical question. It hasn’t done so on any data I’ve seen for the websites that have chosen to do so, but perhaps that will end up being false, sure.

The difference between moral and legal rights is only how strongly a nation/society feels to legalise it via their elected government. What’s legal in one country/society might not be in another. Corporations and lobby groups influence “legality” of what morally might not be “right”. Recent financial crisis and bank behaviour case in point. The lines are murky and can change, often when circumstances change like financial position etc.

In refering to “debate”, I was talking ito the general issue, not your own blog. However, you did invite comments on your own decision, and if you intend to make a subjective call, how can you call it “right” other than in your own view ?

Internet penetration is still growing, so readership will probably grow regardless of comments or not. Pointing out Noakes’s false science hardly discourages his following, etc. Your blog is a specialised opinion website, you attract a certain kind of readership. I would probably never have came here if it wasn’t for the comments section of articles or Twitter replies . Just reading some of these comments on this article makes for interesting points of view and enhances the article. But yes, you are free to do as YOU wish on YOUR blog and I don’t think I have a “right” to a comments section. I am free to decide if it still adds value without it, to continue reading it or not.

I do not like the way that some supposedly liberal thinkers now seem to treat free speech. I’ve seen other cartoons like that xkcd one where they emphasise that free speech is just about government restrictions. Is that really all that it should be? What happened to the ideals of “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”? What’s happening now is a sort of “I disagree with what you say and if you say it then you’re on your own” or “I disagree with what you say and I’m in the majority so too bad.”

Yes, people should be free to publish what they want but if we value free speech then I think we should allow views we disagree with in those venues. I can’t see the groups that support views like in that xkcd comic hearing about a a TV station refusing to air a documentary about a woman’s struggle for equality or about how an atheist was fired for saying his beliefs saying, “Well it was their own fault. They shouldn’t have said that.”

As people start cutting off platforms for other views this ceases to be about offence and it just becomes about groupthink. Anyone that disagrees with the prevailing view is cut off so that nothing challenges the current way of thinking.

Jason, surely disabling comments on one site doesn’t diminish the overall freedom of any person to express their views, as there are other platforms they could do this on? Second, if we value free speech, then there’s a case to be made for at least moderating comments, because people could be inhibited from commenting if they encounter a thread filled with crap or abuse (i.e. overall freedom could be enhanced by limiting comments on one particular platform).

Assuming this adds up to potential for groupthink is rather uncharitable towards an author. If a person (me, for example) wants a certain tone on his own website, that doesn’t necessarily entail that they are intolerant of dissent – just that they prefer to get it in other ways. As I said to Rory above/below (depending on how you have comments arranged), one could also post dissent as “letters to the editor”.

My comment was only intended to apply to the broader discussion on free speech, not to your comment section in particular. I am certainly in favour of moderating comments and I can accept people running their sites how they wish.

Does the idea of “consensual reception” [there must be a better term] of offensive speech help? If a fundamentalist Christian is offended by Monty Python’s Life of Brian, that is not relevant: they are not obliged to watch it. In this case, there is no legal or moral right not to be offended.

However, if a Fundamentalist Atheist accosts our Fundamentalist Christian with “How does it feel to worship a genocidal maniac?”, whether on the street or on Twitter, the offense felt is relevant; the offended party was not given a choice on whether or not to receive the communication. When we are minding our own business, perhaps we do have a moral right not to be offended.

I don’t know how social media can be made to accommodate this right. Facebook does currently let you limit who can send you messages, but that is like never leaving your house in case a stranger says something offensive to you.

Regarding closing the comments: one thing they are useful for is minor corrections, but that can be handled via Twitter. Something else they’re good for is “right of reply”; when necessary, perhaps you could offer to post a link to a rebuttal. I’m thinking particularly of Prof Noakes, who I think has used your comments section.

One odd thing about the comments is the adverts that come along with them. I don’t think “100 sexy photos you gotta see” quite matches the tone of your site.

Thanks Rory – useful ideas, which I’ll ponder on. As for the specific issues – regarding comments, Twitter is certainly one option. I’m also happy to receive email correspondence, and if it’s a substantive enough issue, that correspondence (with permission, of course) could be posted as a separate post, in a section (akin to letters to the editor). As for the ads, good point – I don’t pay much attention to them myself, but agree that I wouldn’t want such jarring things there. If there’s no way to tweak what shows up, I’ll be disabling that (at least).

(I’ve just toggled the Disqus settings for ads/related content to “highly filtered” – the inappropriate stuff should be gone now.)

Personally, I rather like having a comments section.
In a blog which deals with important topics in a mature way, the way certain people react gives at least a glance at how people understand the topic. For me, that insight is well worth a couple of trolls.
Perhaps instead of a full blown comments section, you could have a voting system.
Ask a question reading before the article then it again after reading the article. That type of result could be very interesting.

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