"Freedom of Speech"

Many people are anxious to claim that they are all for free speech but, they say, some speech is just not free speech. On the face of it, this is a rather bizarre statement. What does it actually mean?

It would seem obvious that the phrase "freedom of speech" relates freedom and speech. Freedom is the lack of mandatory restraint or limit, the state of being free. Then of course we run into the contradiction we just noticed, that, in putting a limit on what speech is free and which is not, we by definition lack true freedom of speech. The presence of a limit proscribes it from being free. For example, consider a prisoner told he was released, and he now had freedom of movement. But, oh, he can't go there. Or here, or there. Patently ridiculous, his captors here have simply relaxed their command of his movement and called it "freedom" despite it being no such thing. Similarly, to claim someone has freedom of speech and yet cannot say certain things is a blatantly paradoxical dictation.

So why is it then that we find this to be a popular position?

In modern times, I find every political movement wishes to frame itself in the context of freedom (italics and all). The great moral good of the day is that of freedom (liberty, you might say), freedom for the masses, freedom of politics, freedom of the press, the free market, women's liberty, freedom of movement, and indeed free speech. These are all causes championed virtually universally in the mainstream and beyond. This is such a strong current that is has even given its name to the driving school of thought in the modern age, Liberalism.

Given the nature of modern ideologies, this results in some pretty hilarious twisting and turning to square what they want so as to express it in the language of freedom: the police can detain you at will to keep society free; these dangerous political parties are banned because they threatened freedom; we must censor certain segments of the press to maintain the freedom of the people's choice; we require market regulations, otherwise corporations will take away our freedom; you can't have a male-only space, that would violate women's freedom; it's illegal to have too many whites in a company to protect minorities' freedom. And so on and on. Depending on your point of view, some or all of these actions are completely legitimate and I might tend to agree. What I think anyone can agree on regardless, however, is that trying to justify them through the right of freedom is at best naive and at worst dishonest. In fact, I think this is an inherent problem with freedom-as-justification. Any or all of the above statements (again depending on your point of view) could be valid but with a simple change of perspective they reverse: your freedom of movement is violated by being detained, the parties' freedom to exist and speak is violated by being banned, the press' freedom to write is violated by being censored, the corporation's freedom to act is violated by being regulated, the man's freedom of association is violated, and the employer's freedom to hire who they want is violated. Any freedom can depend on the violation of the freedom of another.

It is, however, this same justification used in censoring speech. We must stop you speaking to maintain freedom from hateful language, your speech is actually a cover for abuse and is threatening someone's freedom from it, that publication threatens the freedom of this group, and so on.

But I don't intend to argue in favour of free speech either. In fact, it would be ridiculous to ever expect that free speech could come to pass in any situation besides total lawlessness. Trivially, no government would survive for long that permitted plotting its own overthrowal; any kind of state that allowed that would have to be practically suicidal. No, revolutionary (in the actual, literal sense of the word) planning is out, as is violence. I doubt many people would oppose it being illegal to threaten someone with murder, the society that allows such a thing hardly seems civil. The list goes on and the longer it gets the more people I necessarily lose but the point is not the specific, but that, in principle, the vast majority of people agree with this stance: that true freedom of speech is neither desirable nor practically possible.

This is all fine, the only reason most of these people claim to be in favour of free speech in the first place is not because it particularly attracts them but because freedom is the great good of the age. That is the only reason it offends many to say they aren't in favour of free speech, if freedom weren't in vogue they would express their support for "generally being able to say an opinion as long as it's not too controversial" in some other framing. Most people do not want true freedom of speech, but they do want to be able to call what they want freedom of speech. The freedom-wars over what counts as free speech are just the expression of some other ideological conflict where censorship happens to be the cudgel with which one side is beating the other; the battle is to decide who draws the line of controversy and where rather than the nominal battle to determine if controversy should even factor into it in the first place.

The aim of this piece is not to argue for or against free speech, I want that to be immaterial to the point and frankly I hope you can't tell what my position is from reading it; what I am concerned with is not the specific position people take but the honesty involved in taking one position or another. There are people who really do support true freedom of speech and there are people who don't and are honest about it, again it's not my intention to make out that everyone is dishonest besides myself but to draw attention to qualities of the discussion. I don't necessarily agree with any of the statements made about the morality or practicability of free speech made above.