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.