Unfortunately, we aren’t usually taught what “free speech” means. We get intensely nervous whenever someone says the word “censorship” to the point that people use it to manipulate us into things we’d never do otherwise. An example is people claiming that advertisers must buy ads on Rush Limbaugh’s show or else they’ll cause the downfall of the freest country on earth. (The geek equivalent usually involves a mailing list and misogyny or homophobia.)
The fear that we’ll end up a repressive autocratic state is a major one, and rightly so. But the stuff that people think they have to defend – forcing a private entity to publish speech it finds objectionable – is not what protects us from that fate.
Here’s what free speech actually means in the U.S. and how it protects us:
- Free speech is shorthand for the First Amendment. It says:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Notice that it forbids Congress from making a law abridging the freedom of speech. It doesn’t say anything about anyone else.
- Free speech is about stopping government censorship. What is dangerous and leads us into a repressive system is the government using its massive power to silence people who threaten its power. The press is the watchdog of the U.S. government; without it the powerful will move to consolidate their power and we’ll be helpless. Look at Putin and the journalists he’s murdered – that’s what we’re worried about.
- The First Amendment says nothing about non-governmental entities. Things like newspapers, radio, and book publishers don’t have a huge army, the police, the courts, or other major sources of power to abuse. (Media monopolies excepted, hence on-going attempts to prevent it.) The government can’t stop someone from saying racist things on the street corner, but you can sure as heck kick them out of your living room. Definitely no one has to pay to publish someone’s speech – try telling Random House that free speech means they have to publish your novel. Good luck!
- Freedom to say what you want is not freedom from people reacting to what you say. It’s your right to say something hateful and rude. It’s my right to stop paying you to do it, to tell you that you are a jerk, to fire you, or to stop being your friend. Think about it, if free speech really worked the way people often think, then deleting death threats from your blog comments would turn us into fascist Italy. I think we can agree that that doesn’t seem too likely.
I hope that made sense. The main message I want to get across here is that you don’t have to allow people to say anything they want on your turf in order to preserve your freedom and your system of government. Your conference, mailing list, or company can ban or punish or delete whatever it wants without compromising the integrity of our country. Free speech and its power to keep us safe will continue to work even if we refuse to allow hateful commentary in our communities.