Amidst the throng clamoring over censorship on the internet, the idea of a right to free speech is bandied about habitually. However, what this right is has seldom been elucidated. This keeping in the shadows benefits all involved as a clarification and exploration of the nature of such a right would result in both sides having nothing further to discuss. I like to throw my conclusions out first and then extrapolate backwards so the diligent reader knows where I’m going, and so the lazy reader can stop pretty early while still taking away the correct message. The truth is, both sides in the debate are wrong, and the right to free speech does not exist. Why both sides are wrong, however, is not because the right to free speech does not exist, as you will see presently.
Let’s start with the conservative argument, which typically involves the Constitution and the First Amendment to it. The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…” There is more to it, but I have extracted the relevant lines. The argument goes, the First Amendment recognizes our natural right to free speech, and therefore any law or action that restricts that right is a violation of said right. Notice here the language used in the writing; the Amendment does not say, “the right to free speech,” it says, “the freedom of speech.” The freedom of speech is the natural state of affairs, and positive action comes only from interfering with said freedom. The idea of a right implies that others are required to listen, but I’ll address that in a minute.
Conservatives and others that advocate for the existence of rights fall into the positive rights trap (See All Rights Are Positive Rights for more). When you have a right, it necessarily requires that a responsibility exists for someone else. In this case, a right to free speech implies that the government must positively protect and ensure that all individuals have equal access to free speech. This brings about clamors for the regulation as a utility of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms from the conservatives, which seems to fly in the face of standard conservative talking points for deregulation. However, no one is demanding the New York Times or Washington Post be regulated as a utility. Twitter and Facebook clearly act as publishers since they edit the content you are allowed to see on their platform. This means they should be treated as such and held responsible for the content of the users whose posts they do permit. That being said, I must digress back to the topic at hand.
Conservatives miss the boat completely on free speech, and it is because of this that our legal system is so befuddled. Free speech is the natural state. The only way to abridge someone’s freedom of speech is to initiate force against them. If you stand on your front porch and start talking to the world, how can someone stop you? Want to print up a pamphlet and send it in the mail? As long as you buy the correct postage, how can anyone stop you? Want to write a blog on the internet? As long as you pay for the service on the blog hosting site, how can anyone stop you? The answer is, they have to initiate force against you. Men with guns can put you in chains and kidnap you off of your front porch, men with guns can destroy or order the destruction of your pamphlets or order they not be circulated, and the blog hosting company can violate the terms of your contract and cancel your service arbitrarily and men with guns can stand by and tacitly endorse the aggression against you. This recognition would have prevented volumes of legal precedent and case law from being necessary.
On to the liberals.
Liberals make two misconceptions when it comes to free speech, and the first causes the second. First, they believe in the right to free speech, which necessarily mandates that everyone must be heard that wants to be. This of course requires a platform for voicing said speech, and it requires everyone to listen and therefore validate the person speaking. This is why liberals when not in power demand to be heard in protests, on television, in public speaking events, etc. and why now that they are in power, insist on deplatforming speakers with whom they disagree. Not listening is not an option for them. Neither is exposure to differing opinions, but we already knew that.
This desire to strip a certain group of their fundamental human rights necessarily leads to the second misconception the liberals make; hate speech. What is hate speech? Can it be defined? Calls for action against a certain group that is hated by the caller is not speech; it is a call to action and therefore not speech. The only real definition of hate speech is, speech which is detrimental to the current power structure. With this understanding, those in power can silence those challenging the status quo by condemning them as proponents of hate speech. You always want to demonize the group you are seeking to abuse or exploit, or whose freedom you want to restrict. Don’t believe me? The next time you hear someone accusing someone else of hate speech, take a closer look at the arguments perpetuated by the accused. Chances are good you’ll find some truth in there.
If you have made it this far, you are quite the diligent reader. You should be proud. And I will go pat my ego… Anyway, liberals and conservatives completely miss the boat on free speech, and it is to the detriment of everyone. Conservatives cannot frame the idea correctly, and liberals cannot stand the idea of anyone disagreeing with them. Until everyone learns that the only ethical principle is the initiation of the use of force is morally wrong, we will continue to see fights about the proper arrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic.