The Limits of “Free Speech”

The claim that free speech is under attack is everywhere. Given how important the concept seems to be, you’d think people would be more concerned with carefully explaining what free speech is and why it matters in the first place. Instead, you tend to get vague remarks about a “free society,” or hypothetical scenarios that have no bearing on actual reality. Most of us have been raised to believe that free speech is a good thing, and we tend to take this idea for granted, so maybe it’s not surprising that we rarely ask ourselves more fundamental questions like “What does free speech mean?”, “Why is free speech important?”, and “Who is benefiting from the support of free speech?”. In an effort to clear up some of the confusion around free speech, who has it and who doesn’t, and how it’s being used, I’m going to tackle some of these questions head on.


What is free speech?

What do we mean when we talk about free speech? Free speech laws such as the First Amendment in the United States are supposed to protect individuals and organizations from government censorship and repression—they have nothing at all to say about how ordinary people treat one another. This distinction is important, in part because most governments, even those that are supposedly democratic, are in practice run by and subservient to the interests of the rich and powerful. With corporate lobby groups and private donors wielding so much power, the state can’t be trusted to regulate speech. Even hate speech laws, which are supposed to protect marginalized groups, tend to be abused. For example, in 2015 the Canadian government used hate speech laws to criminalize protests against the Israeli state’s occupation of Palestine by equating criticism of the Israeli state with anti-Semitism.

There’s also a big difference between having the right to speak, and having the right to a platform. While social media has made it easier for ordinary people to share their views with an audience outside their immediate friends and family, most of us don’t have access to large, established platforms, which include things like TV appearances, articles in widely circulated newspapers or magazines, popular YouTube channels, public speeches, etc. These platforms significantly magnify the effects and reach of a person’s speech, granting them a disproportionate amount of power and influence, and so it makes sense that this person’s views should be subject to some degree of scrutiny and public oversight. When someone like Milo Yiannopolous is invited to speak at a university, he is making use of resources provided by the student body and, through government grants and subsidies, the public at large. When members of the public decide that they don’t agree with how those resources are being used, and show up to protest the event (usually after trying to go through official channels and being repeatedly ignored), they are not only exercising their free speech, but also asserting democratic control over the use of public resources. This kind of public accountability is essential to any real democracy, since it helps to prevent abuses of power.

The only way you can support Milo’s right to “free speech” in this situation is if you have a very broad interpretation of free speech, and a very narrow interpretation of democracy. In other words, you have to see free speech laws as applying to everyday interactions between ordinary people (which, legally speaking, they do not), while at the same time arguing that democracy is limited only to procedures involving the government, and is not about ordinary people acting collectively or making decisions about things that affect them on a day-to-day basis.

In theory, free speech is a right available to everyone; in reality, it’s a function of power. The more power you have, the more freely you’re able to speak, the larger your platform, and the less likely you are to be silenced by the threat of violence.  Because of widespread inequality and differences in power, some speech also prevents other speech. When a cop tells you “stop talking or I’ll have you arrested,” chances are you’re going to shut up. Similarly, you probably aren’t going to tell your boss that the joke they just made was racist if you think they might fire you because of it, but you will be careful not to mention that you support Black Lives Matter in front of them. And when someone’s YouTube video containing copyrighted materials is taken down because of a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) complaint, people rarely say that the corporation that owns the intellectual property and/or YouTube is infringing on that person’s free speech. The point is that the broad definition of free speech doesn’t actually hold up in the real world, because very few if any people are free to say whatever they want whenever they want without consequence. It takes a whole lot of power, money, and privilege to have that kind of latitude, and most of us aren’t Donald Trump.



Why is free speech important and who is benefiting from the support of free speech?

Free speech can play an important role in preventing government abuses or empowering people who are typically disempowered. However it can also be used to hurt people and reinforce existing hierarchies, which is why it’s essential not to talk about free speech in the abstract, but instead look at how the concept of free speech is actually being used, and to what effect.

Because we’re taught that free speech is automatically good, we also tend to think that anyone “attacking” free speech is automatically bad. This knee-jerk reaction can be used against us, and so we need to be able to recognize when arguments in support of free speech are being used selectively to benefit certain groups, while dismissing or demonizing others.

For many, free speech only seems to be an issue when it affects people in positions of power or authority. One of the reasons we’re seeing so much talk about free speech these days is because groups that are historically silenced and denied access to public platforms are making use of tools like social media and collective action to speak up and share their experiences and criticisms with the rest of the world. Critical discussions about race, gender, capitalism, policing, borders, and so on are becoming more mainstream as different voices enter the public arena for the first time. This situation makes people in positions of power, people who aren’t used to being challenged or held accountable for their actions, uncomfortable and defensive. But we should be asking ourselves, why are these people’s comfort more important than the well-being of the people who are being hurt by the systems of oppression and exploitation that they’re trying to address?

Strangely enough, some of the staunchest “supporters” of free speech, are also the ones terrorizing Muslims, people of colour, and other marginalized groups. White supremacist and neo-fascist groups have discovered that rallying under the banner of free speech is an effective way to push their far-right views into the mainstream, while benefiting from the protection of well-meaning liberals. Often these groups will tone down their language, re-frame their views, or use humor and irony in order to appeal to a broader audience and maintain plausible deniability (for example saying “I didn’t mean it that way” or “it was just a joke” when called out), knowing all the while that their arguments are a stepping stone to more extreme and violent forms of racism, misogyny, transphobia, etc.

This is why the white supremacist website Daily Stormer celebrates Pewdiepie, a famous YouTuber with over 50 million subscribers who has recently taken to making anti-Semitic jokes, for his “normalization of Nazism and Jew hatred.” Fascists understand the importance that a large platform plays in growing their movement and achieving their long-term goals.  Pewdiepie, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Milo Yiannopolous, and other relatively well-known figures may not be fascists themselves, but they play a crucial role in creating the conditions that allow fascism to take hold.

Free speech is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. It’s essential that we learn to think about free speech in critical terms, especially when the mainstream media is stoking fears about “social justice warriors” and “political correctness,” as a way to avoid deeper discussions about the role our institutions play in maintaining and justifying systems of oppression.  

The Limits of “Free Speech”