The Myth of Free Speech

The idea of free speech is central to the cultural identity of western civilization. Over the centuries the term “free speech” has morphed and changed its connotations as society has evolved. The current interpretation of what free speech entails is far from it’s original meaning and in fact has become something that is fundamentally impossible to achieve.

Generalized free speech is not compatible with the reality of being human.

If we explore what free speech means with a naive perspective we might believe that it means we can say what we want – shout our opinions – without any fear of penalties or punishments. This description requires two questions to be answered:

  1. who does the punishing? – court of law, private companies, or individual people?
  2. are there limits to what we can say with impunity?

The limits of what we can say is a complex question. As a society we want to allow for free debate on public policy and discourse – it encourages robust ideas to be raised and healthy debate to ensue. Google did a bunch of research on what makes teams effective and discovered a notion of “psychological safety” as an important factor. The idea is that when people feel safe about bringing their ideas up to the rest of a group without judgement, more ideas get evaluated and better work is done. These things assume that people are working together for a common goal – better country/city/province management or on creating the best results on a company project.

A broader view of things unveils some holes. Should people be free to spread hate? say things that recruit people to ISIS? use their words to convince people to buy fraudulent products? or say things that undermine public health? Is there a line to be drawn on what is and is not acceptable? People who are skilled with using words can use them to great effect for good or bad. Our complex communication differentiates humans from animals – clearly it is powerful. Should that power be allowed to wielded with only positive impact and any negatives rolled into “free speech” and shrugged off?

When looking at who does the punishing for things that are said it’s important to consider the ranges of what is possible for what is said and what the punishment might be as a result. If I share my opinion to a die hard Toronto Maple Leafs fan that the team sucks, I might expect to get a fist in the face as punishment (probably not acceptable by a court of law). If someone shares their opinion that someone is an idiot and as a result they might punish the person by unfriending them. If we were obligated to not punish people or companies for things they say then we lose the power to make decisions based on things we read or hear. A non-starter.

If we look at how companies might punish us for things we say there are some other concerns. Facebook is a centralized middleman for all content that goes through the system, people write things and send it to them in the hopes that future people will view Facebooks pages and find and read it. They are not obligated to ensure things show up when pages are refreshed. While those that want to use platforms like Facebook to talk about controversial opinions may find themselves under attack it’s not that much different than people communicating their porn on kids websites. would you expect the website owners to leave that up under free speech? Probably not.

Taking things to logical extremes is a thought exercise that helps to reveal where the holes are.

Free Speech by necessity exists within confines of limits of how it is defined. We are allowed to criticize government without punishment of going to jail. To extend the limits on what we can freely talk about, to whom and what the limits are to punish people for things they say is a complex debate and should consider whether or not it is constructive, or limiting on freedoms of others.

There are no freedoms given which don’t take freedoms away from others.