What is being missed by freedom of speech advocates

While this is a topic that I do not think about much in China, it is an issue that keeps popping up in various Western countries. I wish I had a penny for every time someone has said, “What about freedom of speech,” or a similar phrase.

Recently, it has been commonly seen when people are blocked or removed from social media platforms, with the traditional claim that they are being censored by the left or the woke and that these platforms do not have the right to censor or de-platform people.

So why does this keep coming up?

What does freedom of speech mean?

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says:

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.

Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights amends the above with the following:

1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.

2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:

(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others;

(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.

Article 19, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

What does this mean? That means that freedom of speech and freedom of expression are not absolute – there are restrictions to it. There have always been boundaries for free speech, even by the founder of liberalism’s ideal of free speech, John Stuart Mill.

If there are boundaries to freedom of speech and expression, where do those boundaries lie? Many look at the harm principle and the offense principle, which both offer their unique perspectives.

The bigger issue right now is where the laws around freedom of speech and expression apply. When people use these social media platforms to write whatever they want, they are using a private company – not a government-funded service. Sure, the Internet and the basic infrastructure may be government funded (and we know that the majority of those platforms are not paying their fair share of taxes), but for the most part, these companies do not have the need to regulate themselves in the same way as government departments.

What is the situation now?

Columbia University Professor Tim Wu had some interesting ideas about the First Amendment in the US Constitution, arguing that perhaps it needed to be reassessed for the digital age.

Further to that, UQ Head of the School of Political Science and International Studies Professor Katharine Gelber said in an interview earlier this year:

they (the social media platforms) need to take advice — and implement that advice — from scholars and practitioners who understand that free speech is not one-sided. Like any human right, free speech carries with it commensurate responsibilities. The responsibility that inheres in freedom of speech is the responsibility not to harm others with one’s speech. Everyone is entitled to hold their own views. But when they express these views in public discourse, they have a responsibility to do so in a way that does not harm others. This lesson appears to have been entirely forgotten by those who use the mantra of “free speech” in increasingly meaningless, or selective, ways.

Professor Katharine Gelber, “Free speech” and the responsibilities of social media companies: When should political speech lose its protection?, ABC Religion and Ethics, 27 January 2021

This is the enormous challenge facing the globe now. The amount of care associated with not harming others seems to be irrelevant – the companies are focused on making money, and they will only act if they believe that acting provides them an opportunity to make more money or remove a public relations crisis. Removing Trump was not the first time they have removed political figures from their platforms, as was pointed out by MIT Technology Review earlier in 2021.

What are they complaining about?

The real complaint is that conservative voices believe that they are being drowned out by the left side of politics. Whether this is true or not is a separate debate, but their basic argument is that the American style of free speech is not available to them anymore, particularly on social media. Now that may be true, as argued by one legal scholar. That may not be a bad thing, but conservatives would argue that their voices are being silenced.

Now, some of the loudest conservative voices arguing this are saying this on multiple television stations, in radio interviews, in newspaper articles and on social media – isn’t it odd that the voices complaining about being silenced are often the loudest?

It certainly makes me wonder if they really understood what freedom of speech meant or if they appreciated the difference between public and private companies. They talk about regulating these companies in ways that would not really have the impact that they think they would.

At the end of November, Australian senator Jacqui Lambie made an excellent point about freedom of choice and freedom of speech during a debate about vaccine mandates.

The lack of understanding about the consequences of your actions is something that some of the more viral freedom of speech commentators have struggled with and will continue to struggle with for years to come, at least in my opinion.

What do you think? Have freedom of speech advocates missed the point, or are they on the mark? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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