What Does Freedom of Speech Actually Mean?

What does freedom of speech actually mean? It doesn't mean you can say whatever you want without consequences

There’s been a lot of talk over the last while about freedom of speech, with some people feeling that their freedom of speech, or freedom of speech in general, is being limited. I thought I’d chime in on the matter, although I’m perhaps a bit late to the party.

Freedom of speech is considered a basic human right. Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

as cited in Wikipedia

Freedom of speech and the First Amendment

In the United States, the First Amendment of the Constitution, passed in 1791, prevents the government from infringing on citizens’ freedom of speech, with a few other things tossed in as well, including freedom of the press and freedom of assembly.

That means the government can’t stop you from speaking freely… most of the time. Freedom of speech never has been, and I’m sure never will be, an absolute. None of us exists in a vacuum, and what we do affects others, and potentially infringes on their rights. Therefore, governments impose laws limiting certain types of speech. Uttering threats to kill someone gets into criminal territory, as does hate speech and defamation.

There are also restrictions on where you can say things. You can’t just say whatever, wherever, and whenever you want, as much as some people might wish that was the case.

A hypothetical scenario 30 years ago

Let’s say it’s 30 years ago, before the internet is really a thing. Let’s say that I’ve got a telepathic connection to Q, of QAnon infamy, and I want to spread the message. I’ve got my clunky computer at home, and I happen to be lucky enough to have a dot matrix printer. I print out a bunch of leaflets with my QAnon jazz. I’m going to go out and spread the news.

I start off by standing across the street from your house, trying to hand out my Qanon leaflets. As long as I’m not breaking any nuisance bylaws, I’m exercising my freedom of speech. The problem is, it’s really hot out, so I decide to come over and pass out my leaflets from your front lawn, where there’s a nice tree creating some shade. You, quite rightly, will probably tell me to fuck off, because I don’t have freedom of speech privileges on your property.

Moving along, the next stop is the local newspaper. I drop off a letter to the editor. I hope they’ll print it, but free speech doesn’t mean that they have to print the wingnut letters dropped off by every Tom, Dick, Harry, and Ashley.

Next stop, the mall – because yeah, that was the place to be pre-internet. I head on in and start trying to hand out my QAnon leaflets. Security comes and tells me to get the hell out. No matter how hard I try to claim freedom of speech, I’m getting my ass booted out of that mall.

A similar scenario today

Let’s fast forward to today. Instead of handing out my Q leaflets on your lawn, I’m doing it in the comments on your blog. It’s still not somewhere that I’m entitled to freedom of speech. You may choose to run your blog in such a way that you allow anyone to speak any garbage they want, but the First Amendment still doesn’t apply. You, on the other hand, can say what you want on your lawn, subject to the bylaws of the WordPress “town” in which your blog is located.

I’ve seen the argument that if you’re not willing to allow any and all comments, you shouldn’t have a blog in the first place. Oh, come on now. Just because you have a house with doors on your property doesn’t extend an automatic invitation to me or any other sketchy rando to wander on in for tea.

Next up, instead of going to the newspaper, now I’m heading over to a blog that accepts guest posts. They can ignore me, because I’m not free to foist my speech onto their blog.


Then, instead of the mall, I go to Twitter. Both feel like pretty public spaces because lots of people are hanging out and there’s lots of chatter going on, but they’re not public. They’re private businesses, and when you’re “in” a private business, you have to follow their rules or they can give you the heave-ho. Their rules have to follow the law, so they can’t arbitrarily discriminate based on protected characteristics like race or gender, but they do get to establish their terms and conditions to apply equally to all users. If you don’t like them (which would, of course, require you to read them, which no one ever does, but that’s not their problem), you are free to go outside, and do like I did at the beginning, start handing out leaflets in an actual public space in a non-bylaw-violating way.

And in case you think any of these private business platforms owe you something as a customer, unless you’re paying for the service that you’re using, there’s no way you’re the customer. Nothing is ever actually free, and while we’ve come to expect everything online to be free, how long would you keep running a business that was giving everything away and not paying your employees? Your information is the product, and advertisers are the customers. Twitter doesn’t owe you diddly squat.

What freedom of speech restrictions look like

There can be actual internet-related violations of freedom of speech, though. A clear example is the infringement on freedom of speech, and also on freedom of information, that’s happening in countries like China where the things that people can say and access online are very tightly controlled by the government. Google doesn’t exist in China because the government shuts that shit down, along with anything else they don’t want to allow.

So, is it a violation of freedom of speech that Donald Trump got the boot from Twitter a couple of months ago? It’s a moot point because the First Amendment doesn’t apply to private businesses like Twitter. Are social media platforms selective in enforcing their terms and conditions? Sure, no question. But if they were to actually enforce them across the board all of the time, that would probably result in a whole lot more people getting kicked off. What does that do to perceived freedom of speech? It’s also bad for business, because after all, users are the product.

It sounds like, philosophically at least, Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook to be as free speech-leaning as possible, but these companies have to cover their own asses. In the über-litigious US, they could end up getting sued for big money for stuff they allowed to happen on their platform.

Back 30 years ago, there was only so much I could do to get my QAnon out to the world. Now, I have way more opportunities than I did then, but there are still limits. I’m glad to leave the dot matrix printer behind, though.

What are your thoughts on freedom of speech in the internet age?

A quick P.S.

Notice that not a single one of the examples I gave from my traipse about town involved government. When governments and other controlling institutions restrict speech, that’s where you start getting into censorship territory. That’s a very different can of tuna from me trying to say my thing on someone else’s private property. Losing sight of that fundamental difference risks diluting the actual meaning of freedom of speech. If we’re arguing that someone’s social media account getting deactivated for a violation of terms of service is on par with governments preventing citizens from accessing social media platforms to begin with, then there is a fundamental lack of understanding of what freedom of speech is, and what censorship is.

47 thoughts on “What Does Freedom of Speech Actually Mean?”

  1. Interesting, although I’m not sure the example about standing on someone’s lawn is really a freedom of speech issue; it sounds to me more like trespass. I think if someone invites you into their home, they can throw you out if they so decide, but they can’t enforce a rule of “You can stay here, but you can’t talk about QAnon.”

    1. Of course they can enforce it. If someone was in my home and started spouting off antisemitic garbage, for example, I would give them the boot, because that kind of speech is not tolerated in my home, whether it falls within the legal criteria of hate speech or not.

  2. Freedom of speech goes back to the Greeks. They would gather and have debate over matters of concern. Those who wish to abolish freedom always attack free speech. Those who wish to gain influence or maintain power always attempt to silence the opposition. In our society propagandists silence their rivals with convoluted definitions of what constitutes free speech. Most of “hate speech” is constitutionally protected political expression.

    Lively debate may become contentious. It is not government’s place to limit speech other than criminal threats. Any internet site is petty much a public forum and should not be subjected to discrimination of any type. That is why we gave them liable protection. These large internet mogels must be broken up for antitrust concerns. The cancel culture must be modified to a criticism culture if democracy is to prevail.

    1. Although in a sense, what is more democratic than a bunch of people deciding en masse to “cancel.” I don’t support cancel culture, but you’re essentially suggesting that people engaging it is not an acceptable form of speech.

  3. I just recently read Ted Cruz’ book “one Vote Away”. It is filled with al kinds of great insight and wisdom. 1) “Free speech is indispensable not only to our First Amendment but also to our functioning democratic process”. 2) “Speech is more than just standing on a soap box yelling on a street corner. For centuries the Supreme Court has rightly concluded that free speech includes writing and distributing pamphlets, putting up billboards, displaying yard signs, launching a website, and running radio and television ads. Every one of those activities requires money”. 3) “No politician should be immune from criticism. Congress has too much power already–it should never have the power to silence citizens”. 4) “If you disagree with political speech, the best cure is more speech, not less. The First Amendment has served America well for 223 years. When Democrats tried something similar in 1997, Sen. Ted Kennedy was right to say: “In the entire history of the Constitution, we have never amended the Bill of Rights, and now is no time to start”. These are just a few of the reasons why Free speech is SO important. Without free speech, even and especially that we disagree with, we have NO freedoms at all. All freedoms come from the ability to speak and express ourselves freely, without fear of punishment.,

    1. Free speech is absolutely important, but I think it helps to be clear about what that applies to, otherwise we’re not talking about the same thing. If I were to write critically about the government on my blog or a public forum, that’s 110% a matter of free speech that should be allowed without question. But if I go onto another blogger’s site and launch into a racist diatribe directed at them, that’s not me exercising my freedom of speech, that’s me being abusive, and they are and should be completely free to delete that.

      1. Yes and no. Yes, it is abusive, and no one SHOULD do that, but if that happens, it is up to you to control it by either saying you do not tolerate that kind of speech on your personal blog and in your personal space, and if they continue to do so, it is up to you to take measures to stop it from happening again. That being said, you are not necessarily preventing them from saying things you do not like, you are just preventing them from saying it to you. We always have the option to walk away from things we do not like. Once we start going down the path of censorship, it is a very slippery slope. Today, it may be the Neo Nazis. Tomorrow, it may be me, and the next day, it may be you. Censorship of any kind is a dangerous thing. Censorship is the first step to taking away all of our freedoms. I totally abhor the neo-Nazis, and everything they have to say, but as long as they are being peaceful, they too are still protected under the First Amendment, as they should be. Words and thought are protected. it is the violent and criminal actions that we need to worry about. Those are what are truly dangerous. It’s just like the saying we all grew up with “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”. We need to go back to that, and be stronger than someone’s words. We need to learn to walk away from things we don’t like. No harm, no fowl.

        1. Censorship is done by government. What I’m saying is that free speech doesn’t mean people can say whatever to whoever whenever. Someone has the choice what to allow on their blog, and that doesn’t impinge on people’s free speech; it’s “you can’t say that to me, right now, here in my space”. I can support people’s right to say all kinds of things but not be prepared to allow it on my blog, because someone’s freedom of speech doesn’t give them the right to say what they want on my blog. If the government tries to say what people are allowed to post on their blog, that’s censorship and completely unacceptable. Those are two very different things.

  4. I tend to not get into these kind of topics because of the arguments. There was a song that was recently released by a conscience hip hop artist. He pretty much put today’s society in a nutshell. Talked about Cancel Culture etc. One of my favorite lines from the song was ‘There is a difference between hate speech and speech that you hate’ meaning not everyone’s opinion is necessarily hateful just because it hurt someone’s feelings I think. Unless you are actually discriminating against someone or a group, I am all for freedom of speech. I again have my own opinions and I am not really sensitive towards speech or someone’s ignorant opinion. Like said above in a reply by someone the path of censorship is a very slippery slope. Our freedoms are in fact being taken away when it comes to freedom of speech because now everyone’s feelings matter. It is not up to the government to babysit us from a hateful comment on the internet or in public. That is up to parents if the child is say young, and once we are old enough to think for ourselves it is up to us to deal with it.

    1. What I find puzzling, to be honest, is how censorship is used as such an umbrella term. When I think censorship, I think restrictions imposed by governments, courts, and other major social institutions, and I’m completely against that. But I also see people calling it censorship if someone is deleting comments on their blog, or if a privately owned social media platform deletes an account for violating their terms of service. I feel like if we start diluting the use of the term censorship, we start to lose sight of the actual damage being done by actual censorship in Russia, China, and various other places. Twitter giving someone the boot isn’t censorship; China not allowing citizens to access Google is.

      1. I completely agree with you! As frustrating as it is to see your comment deleted when in most cases the person was responding to a either a thread or a blog that was most likely talking about controversial things. I kind of have this rule…If I wish to not get into debates or hear others opinions I should not discuss openly religion, politics etc…and if I do I am kind of asking for it? In which case I should probably just respect people’s difference perspective instead of censoring them. Like that this is a very complexed subject. Rather it is censorship or not, I think it is pretty sad when we can’t handle difference of opinion (unless of course it is in fact discriminating or violent etc) on the internet. If we are personally choosing to censor the internet, rather it is right or wrong who are we becoming as a society? We are becoming so sensitive that we throw a tantrum if someone disagrees with us. When was even disagreeing a bad thing? As stubborn as I am (and I am very) I have actually surrendered in debates before and at the very least if it didn’t change my own perspective (in some cases it even has) I learned something new from another perspective. Having an intellectual conversation does not mean two or a group of people have to agree 100%. So I see all sides kind of. It is a very slippery slope to ban people from threads for having an opinion alone. In most cases these threads are only deleting, banning and censoring what they don’t like and it not banning as a whole of what goes against their terms of service. I think that is a huge part of the problem is the bias. People have a right to delete hate speech, but should they delete comments for someone sharing an opinion on something they themselves chose to freely talk about? They do, but I would think it is quite sensitive to do so as long as the individual who commented is not doing any harm. I guess in simple terms this way is basically saying ‘agree with me or my public form 100% or else….’ My bitterness I think comes from seeing our society becoming so sensitive by the day it seems. No one can say anything anymore it feels without being this huge issue or someone is taking it personally. When in reality through all our differences especially when it comes to say politics and our government, we need to be open to each other’s opinions and uniting. Instead we are just blocking each other on social media and the government be like ‘more divide so they can’t see what we are really doing to keep control..SUCCESS’

        If we can’t have freedom of speech on the internet or maybe allow it ourselves I can see why that is a problem. The internet is actually the last place we can truly practice freedom of speech so I can see why people get frustrated for being banned for sharing a simple opinion. LIke you said though that person or thread has the right to delete it and that is not censorship.

        There is however an issue with actually censorship going on in the internet and it is becoming a very slippery slope. After all we don’t really know the reason behind of why these public forums are choosing to censor certain stuff. It could be dangerous and we are saying well that’s not censorship. But what if it actually is? By us saying these forums have aright to just deny our opinions can be scary, Considering most of these companies like Facebook, twitter etc….are about as sketch as the government.

        1. I guess where the real freedom of speech comes from with the internet is that you can always find a place where you are able to say what you have to say, whether that’s your own website or whatever. It doesn’t mean that you’re always going to be able to say whatever you want and have that be welcome on someone else’s corner of the internet. There’s a big difference between “public” as in town square and “public” as in a group that’s a private space but chooses to allow in certain people.

  5. Workplace speech is also restricted in US. Workplaces are deemed by law to be about doing a job, so speech that’s legal on a public street corner can be abridged on the job by statute. That’s maybe your point of where and to whom speech can be directed is abridged. But you can go find another place to say it. In essence, the government Mars safe spaces for people to work free of controversial topics. Enforcement is another issue. Eugene Volokh at UCLA was a resource we used to use on this topic.

    Court case we learned about in college: dude in a coutrroom turns to leave the courtroom and judge has him cited for contempt because his jacket said, “Fuck the draft” (during Vietnam War) on the back. All the way to the Supreme Court and dude wins as protected political speech against the draft and not obscenity as judge alleged.

    We disapprove of cancel culture because we perceive it as violent. We tend to oppose actions that deny someone’s humanity. Empathy gap at work with speech that is intolerant and cancel reactions to it.

    We like safe spaces where we can retreat from speech. And we don’t go online and get exposed too much. Don’t know what Q is. Not interested either tbh.

    Interesting topic ❤️

    1. Cancel culture is a very weird phenomenon. I don’t approve of it either, but it has only arisen because social media made it possible for people to organize collectively to “cancel” others. So it’s a strange combination of suppressing one individual’s speech through the aggregate unfettered speech of the masses, or what my grandma would refer to as “the great unwashed.”

      I also like to retreat from speech, and I think that’s an important right as well, for the sanity of humanity.


  6. Love this. Fair, accurate and even-handed.

    There’s a very noisy minority of super entitled assholes who think they have the right to do and say whatever they want, all of the time. It’s funny seeing such people get arrested/ejected from private businesses.

  7. Ashley, I needed a post exactly like this one. I have had to deal with this on my other blog. I finally had to ask the person not to use the comment section unless it deals with the subject of the post.
    My feelings about free speech is this, it ends when it goes down the path of slander and defamation. Yes, I agree that free speech ends when it comes to threats of violence.

    1. With my blog, I’ve explicitly stated in a couple of places that a priority is to provide a safe space for members of marginalized groups, and all discriminatory comments will be promptly deleted.

  8. Perfect timing for me to share a little story of what happened to me this week. I got into a heated forum discussion with an American (I’m European) about how they pick and choose when amendments suit them (I was referring to hate speech and intolerance in the US, not Americans as a whole). He ranted on about his right to express his outdated narrowminded opinion. So I ranted back with my own opinion, then promptly told me to stop whining and get over it. 🤣 I mean… so his speech had freedom while mine didn’t. 🤷🏻‍♀️ I had to laugh. Anyway, many Americans supported my comments, and again, he continued to act like his opinion was more important while going on about the 1st amendment. I honestly became so speechless that I stopped messaging back.

  9. Good post. This is a thorny topic for sure. I’ve always thought hate speech shouldn’t be covered by free speech laws. I’ve been told before that in Germany, they have laws that prohibit the use of Nazi slogans, regalia, etc. (I could be way off about that, I’m not sure).

    Free speech is really sacred in the US, but I feel like it’s gotten us into trouble. And I agree with one of your main points: Social media companies are businesses, and when they started restricting some comments last year, it’s not really censorship. Censorship would be if the gov’t restricted speech, not a place like Twitter or Facebook.

    I think a good example of what happens when “free speech” gets taken to the extreme is what happened on Parler. Parler let people say whatever they wanted, and it quickly devolved into death threats, hate speech, and plots to storm the capitol. Clearly, there have to be some rules in place.

    1. Yes, human nature being what it is, a total free-for-all isn’t a good thing.

      One thing I find really strange in the US is that freedom of speech is treated as extending to corporate advertising, and that’s why direct to consumer prescription drug ads are allowed there but pretty much nowhere else.

      1. True. It’s also extended to corporations making political donations (I think). Which is why there’s such a huge amount of money involved during campaigns. I remember reading how much the last few presidential campaigns cost and the numbers were staggering.

  10. I wonder if Parler is more of an antitrust issue than a freedom of speech issue. Ideally there should be sufficient competition that 3 mega-companies can’t shut something down completely.

    1. Oooh, don’t get me started! There’s no such thing as freedom of speech for some people, Yet others can freely stand on their soapbox at Speakers Corner in Hyde Park, London – shouting out about their religion and their beliefs, and anyone not sharing their views ought to be stoned or they’re going to hell.

      And I’m sure most of you have heard about one of our TV personality who walked out (before he was sacked) after he said he didn’t believe Meghan Markle? Surely he’s also allowed to share his opinion. People don’t have to like it.

      1. I actually agree with him being fired because I think on air at his job is an entirely inappropriate place to be questioning someone’s statement that they had been feeling suicidal at a certain point in the past. If he spouted off that mentally ill people are just lazy, would that be an aceptable opinion to share? Never mind the lack of professionalism as he walks off air in the middle of a broadcast because he’s in a snit over his colleague questioning him.

        If a nurse held similar opinions, they have a right to hold that opinion and share it with others, but if they start telling their patients that view at work, that’s totally unprofessional and inappropriate. There’s a time to speak freely, and a time to be professional; those times don’t necessarily overlap.

        1. I don’t like the man anyway, and never watched his programme, so I don’t know exactly what he said. I just found her statement “what colour will your baby be?” unbelievable. Hey ho. I never heard or read what he said about her suicidal thoughts so I don’t know that he questioned her suicidal ideation and whether he suggested mentally ill people were lazy.

          The man himself is an arrogant sh*t, all over the media, including Twitter, spouting out mainly a lot of nonsense! I don’t like him so I’m glad he walked out.

          I totally understand the nursing situation and how it would be unacceptable to tell patients about your negative views of suicidal thoughts and feelings. However, we did have some “religious” nurses say out loud that “God wouldn’t forgive them”, that “it’s a sin” and “It’s not fair on your family, your kids, your parents…….”

          Eventually, after many discussions with the Senior Directors, they were ‘banned’ from expressing their negative views of suicide, ECT, and mental illness. I can’t believe they got away with it for so long!

          1. I saw the clip of his show, and they had shown snippets of the Oprah interview, including the part where Meghan said she had been suicidal. Piers then said he didn’t believe a word she had said (which had included the suicidal part). When one of his colleagues accused him of letting his personal issues with her get in the way of his professional role, Piers got up and stormed out. He can disagree all he wants with what she said, but unless he has actual information to refute specific claims she made, that’s it’s not appropriate for him to accuse her of lying across the board (including about her mental health) on air at his job. That’s not freedom of speech, it’s lack of professionalism. And the main point I was trying to make with this post is that people lump all kinds of things into the idea of freedom of speech that aren’t actually about freedom of speech at all.

  11. I don’t think anything happened at Twitter (where I receive very few comments, no matter what I post), but on Facebook somebody from my musical team took exception to your post and left a lengthy comment on my timeline, to which I responded, to which they responded, to which I responded. This person is a member of the Libertarian party and what he wrote was very interesting (though I disagreed.)

    Not sure if you use Facebook, and I tend to think you don’t. But basically it all points to the difficulty people have in distinguishing when the ISSUE is one of free speech, or of the 1st Amendment, and when the issue is something else. I think I defended you fairly well — at least in a manner that held them at bay.

    This incidentally is someone whom I love very much, which also highlights the sometimes troublesome nature of having to “agree to disagree” in polite society. I did get the feeling that we both decided to just “drop it” after a while.

    1. You’re right, I’m not on Facebook. And I agree, the issue isn’t whether free speech is or isn’t necessary, it’s what people include under that umbrella. It’s interesting how people take the notion of speech free of censorship by government and translate that to being able to say whatever/whenever/wherever. I also find it interesting when cancel culture is given as an example of a threat to free speech, when cancel culture only exists because the masses are allowed to jump on board through social media. Without those masses speaking freely in a pro-cancel fashion, there is no cancel culture.

      1. That’s ironic about cancel culture, yes. Well this fellow was expressing opposition to conservative accounts being banned on Twitter and other social media recently, claiming they were targeted because they were “conservative” and not because they had violated terms of service. I didn’t find his arguments to be very convincing, because they generally sidestepped the real issue, and tried to make it a “freedom of speech” issue.

        He did suggest that accounts from Left-leaning users who violated T.O.S. were not being banned, but I balked at trying to fetch this out. I doubt Twitter could catch every account that violates a term of service, and the point is more likely that accounts from people like POTUS 45 and others who get thousands or millions of views and many many re-tweets are perpetrators of high profile violations seen by multitudes of users. No doubt this would be a priority as opposed to launching an investigation into each and every piddly little Twitter account to see who’s violating terms of service. It didn’t seem to me to be a strong argument and the dialogue dwindled from there.

        1. Yeah, if they tried to stay on top of everything that would be impossible, so they focus on the loudest blowhards, which happened to be the POTUS 45 gong show.

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