Free Speech: A Credo

5 minute read

I hesitate to write about politics on a blog that is rarely overtly political. But this is a special kind of politics. It is a kind of politics that transcends ages and national boundaries, that strikes at the heart of what makes us human and the personal effectiveness, individual agency, and grassroots change that Control-Alt-Backspace exists to promote. And I think this is a useful moment in history at which to elevate this message. So here it is.

Freedom of speech still matters. I still support it.

This might seem too obvious to state. It isn’t. It never has been and never will be. Free speech is a wildly counterintuitive, absurd idea that happens to be extraordinarily effective at letting people live well and promoting social change. Once the idea of free speech has pervaded society, we stop noticing its effects, and its basic absurdity starts to creep up on us again. So we need to renew our commitment to free speech at least once every generation, and now is as good a time as ever.

What does supporting free speech mean?

Supporting free speech means you believe that people have the right to say things you find wrong, hurtful, or even evil. You can ignore them if you want. You can listen to them if you want. You can even consider them if you want. You don’t have to agree. You don’t have to keep listening. You don’t have to buy the book. Sometimes people are wrong. It’s okay.

Supporting free speech means supporting the free speech rights even of people you vehemently disagree with. In fact, it means supporting especially the rights of people you vehemently disagree with. If you only support the free speech rights of people you agree with, or mostly agree with, or at least don’t completely disagree with, you are in fact supporting suppression of speech.

There are some who say individuals need not consider free speech rights, that those are only a concern of the government. But free speech is not found in the laws or the constitution; it is found in the hearts and minds and actions of the people. In a democracy, if the people stop upholding the spirit of free speech, the law will eventually follow. And in the meantime, if people can legally speak up, but they’ll be fired and lose all their friends if they do, they don’t really have much freedom of speech. So while you’re free to shun people for speaking their mind, or dismiss them from your organization for tweeting something stupid – these are acts of free speech too, and they’re sometimes appropriate – supporting free speech means that you accept a moral obligation to think seriously about what you’re doing when you impose sanctions on people for their speech. Are they undermining your organization, or saying something you find so abhorrent you really can’t be associated with them – or do you just disagree? Years from now, could it turn out that they were right and you were wrong? Remember, most important ideas start out sounding wrong – like free speech itself.

If we don’t each support free speech in our own lives by visibly tolerating other reasonable perspectives and keeping our responses proportional, even as we disagree, nobody will. Soon there will be nobody willing to stand up for you when you have something unpopular to say.

The harder you try to prevent bad ideas from being shared, the more traction they get. The most effective way to fight a bad idea is to counteract it with a good idea well expressed – a method which conveniently happens to be fully compatible with free speech. So by all means talk back if you disagree. Supporting free speech means that you exercise your own rights instead of denying other people theirs.

Yes, there are information hazards and other dangers to be found in the speech of people you disagree with (as well as those you agree with). But the benefits of free speech exceed these hazards except in a narrow band, which mostly aligns with the First Amendment exceptions that have found their way into US case law over the last 250 years: defamation, imminent lawless action, and the like. We can argue about hate speech. Supporting free speech means that the exceptions must end there.

Our society needs to talk about how social media platforms relate to free speech. They are a novel medium that raises new considerations, and the path forward is not obvious. But supporting free speech means that we cannot allow either a handful of private actors or the government to single-handedly decide what makes up acceptable public discourse. We can’t ignore them because “they’re private companies” when they increasingly hold a near monopoly over being heard. Again, free speech isn’t found exclusively in the law. That’s not how free speech works. And it’s certainly not found only in the laws that were written before these tools existed. We’re a democracy – we can change the laws if we think they don’t make sense anymore.

Supporting free speech means that I invite you to call me out if you ever find me failing to live by these principles. In public, if you like. I can handle it.

Lastly, I also invite you to renew your own commitment to the principles of free speech. You can do that privately, or if like me you are privileged enough to live in a place where you’re legally and socially free to do so, publicly – by sharing this piece, by writing your own piece, by shouting out your window, or even by writing and telling me I’m horribly wrong. Or don’t do anything. You choose: after all, that’s the point.