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.