What free speech really means

Most Americans are taught from an early age that free speech is essential to a free society. This is true.

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.
  3. 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!
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

6 thoughts on “What free speech really means”

  1. I think that fair, equitable and open society requires tolerance. Reasonable people can disagree profoundly, and unreasonable people can disagree profanely. We are each entitled to the security of our person, our home and our mind – but I think it goes too far to say that we should be free to close ourselves off and lock down expression we don’t agree with.

    For example – a government that privatizes everything to the point that every public space is privately owned offers no meaningly freedom of expression. When corporations own every mall, every sidewalk, and Zucotti park, then where is left to protest?

    On a related note, the prevalence of at-will employment and the risk-averse nature of employers also has a chilling effect on free speech. Protestors have lost their jobs due to identification, even though the protests are completely unrelated to their jobs. Maybe it’s my left-leaning european-ness, but I don’t think that you should be free to fire someone merely because you disagree with them.

    So in some respect, I disagree with how far you’ve gone here – I think that there is a place for issues of free expression in relation to corporate effects on speech rights. It’s not just about government.

    I do however agree that there’s nothing wrong with de-funding a Radio host for abhorrent utterances, nobody is guaranteed a platform.

    1. A corporation, ideally, should be nothing more than a group of individuals deciding to act in unison for a common goal. And by that distinction, there is no difference between a corporation of 2 and a corporation of 2 million, save for size. And if you willing to restrict the speech of two, why not the speech of one?

      Just deny those whom you disagree with your funds in the future. And if you disagree with those organizations which fire members based on affiliation with other organizations/identities/ideas/ect., then feel free to keep your funds from them.

  2. Absolutely. Bloggers are under no obligation to approve/publish comments made by random drive-by anonymous cowards.

    Hey, you’ve disabled anonymous comments here! Doesn’t that violate… oh wait, that’s what you were saying…

  3. Free speech is not shorthand for the First Amendment. In private life, freedom of speech is not a right. But it still matters.

    Employers are free to ban political speech of any kind. They can even fire people for expressing political views outside of work. It is my view that they should not be so extreme.

    I don’t want to live and work in an environment where expressing a position on a political topic is off-limits. I certainly don’t want to live in an environment where political views are fine as long as they’re the right ones.

    I think that you would like to make it impossible for me to just take a break from work and chat with people I disagree with, and that really really aggrieves me. Listening to people I disagree with is very important to me.

    1. I am specifically addressing a common misconception of free speech. You can set your own internal standards for what’s up for discussion and what isn’t, my point is that you can do that inside a company without triggering the downfall of your governmental system. What sort of culture you want in your company is then the determining factor in what speech has consequences, rather than a knee-jerk fear of fascist government.

      I’m ignoring the various straw man arguments in the rest of the comment, except to say that if you find a way to prevent chatting with people at work that you disagree with, please tell the rest of us about it!

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