Common Issues in Free Speech Discussions

I usually don’t get into discussions about free speech online, but the topic has come up in offline conversations, often in response to something in the news.

The discussions usually bring up these issues and frustrations:

  • A difficulty defining “harm.” People want to limit or ban “harmful” speech, but their definition of it can be too broad, extending from death threats to emotional upset. (There’s a good discussion of this issue in The Tyranny of Opinion by Russell Blackford.)
  • People sometimes believe that fewer restrictions on speech will mean greater harm to minorities (or, more generally, to people who have less power in society). However, throughout history and around the world now, people who have comparatively little power have been silenced by governments, corporations, religious institutions, and online mobs that use speech regulations to stifle dissent and suppress information deemed unfavorable or threatening.
  • Many times, free speech discussions get limited to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, even though principles of free speech (and issues connected to it) aren’t limited to the U.S. or to the Constitution.
  • A popular line I’ve heard is “speech has consequences.” Meaning, you’re free to say something, but of course there will be consequences for it. Often, this line is delivered with finality, when it really opens up new questions: What are these consequences? Are they proportionate? Who decides what the consequences are and how they get enforced?
  • All-or-nothing thinking can creep into these discussions. For instance, if you support more relaxed speech codes, you get accused of hypocrisy if you’re still against criminal threats and libel. Some people pretend you either have to stand by all speech or agree to fairly tight restrictions.
  • I also notice a lot of confusion of concepts, for example, people seeming to confuse criticism with censorship. (If I’m critiquing a book or an article, I don’t want to censor it. If I find someone too rude or tiresome to talk to, it doesn’t mean I want them censored from all platforms, even though I personally refuse to interact with them.) Another example is the confusion of tact and self-censorship. (Phrasing something politely isn’t the same thing as being afraid to ask a question or express a doubt because you’ll lose your job.)

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