Last night, former SINner Russell Blackford had a poke at Western society for failing to coalesce around a unifying concept of free speech.
It's increasingly clear that our society has no single, clear conception of what free speech is and what it is for.
— Russell Blackford (@Metamagician) March 20, 2016
Part of the problem here may be that there are at least two distinct and divergent notions of what free speech is and why it is to be valued, one much broader than the other. The view we take will have ripple effects throughout all discussions about speech and how we treat those with whom we disagree.
The Narrow View
The narrow conception of free speech is popular among social justice activists; in their view only the government is capable of interference with free speech.
For a timely example, consider this conceptualization of free speech from one of the newly onboarded authors at Freethought Blogs [emphasis mine]:
…free speech means the government can’t prosecute you for things that you say. It does not mean people can’t be pissed off about something you say, or that a corporation can’t refuse to do business with you because you’re prone to saying bigoted shit. It just means the government can’t censor you or punish you.
How This Free Speech Thing Actually Works https://t.co/HCZUxpvijj #atheist #atheism
— Atheism Feed (@FeedAtheism) March 18, 2016
Along the same lines, we have this concise definition from Aoife O’Riordan of The Orbit:
Freedom of speech is this: you won’t be arrested for expressing your opinion. That’s all.
The market has spoken, @TheFemaleGreer. We don't want what you're selling.https://t.co/Nm1LKaVM9m #transphobia #terf #feminism
— Aoife O'Riordan (@flyingteacosy) October 30, 2015
Similarly narrow in scope, we have the following definition from Paul Zachary Myers [emphasis mine]:
Wingnuts really do not understand the concept of free speech at all. Revoking those appearances was not a denial of the right to free speech: free speech does not mean you are owed a high profile platform and a bullhorn to declare your position; it does not mean you are given big bucks to speak. It means the government is not allowed to use its privilege and power to silence you.
If only they understood what free speech is… http://t.co/q0mNG4Cro9 #atheist #atheism
— Atheism Feed (@FeedAtheism) January 14, 2015
Consider also this tidbit from Amanda Marcotte [italics in original]:
Free speech entitles you to:
Say what you want to without fear of government censorship or retribution.
The freeze-peach brigade gets taught a lesson: Amanda Marcotte explains the obvious. Free speech entitles yo… http://t.co/Crj4xxsjCq
— PZ Myers (@pzmyers) June 8, 2013
And finally, from social justice blogger Miri Mogilevsky we have the following:
…the right to free speech–and the rest of the First Amendment rights–constitutes a restriction on the government, not on private individuals or institutions.
Free Speech: What it is, What it Isn't http://t.co/R4hL6mIM
— Miri (@sondosia) March 7, 2012
The tactical advantage to taking such a narrow view of what constitutes free speech is that doing so makes it easy to justify any non-governmental efforts to shut down undesirable speech. For example, social justice activist Sam Ambreen sincerely believes it is her moral duty to shut down the speech of outspoken atheist activists Richard Dawkins, Peter Tatchell, and Maryam Namazie.
If you're an islamophobe like Dawkins Tatchell or Namazie it is my duty to remove your hateful rhetoric from activist spaces
— SilenceoftheXmasHam (@HamHambreen) March 16, 2016
Since Sam is not part of the government, those who adhere to the narrow conception of free speech cannot criticize her no-platforming efforts on free speech grounds.
The narrow view of free speech makes it impossible to criticize—on speech grounds—any of the following activities so long as they are carried out by non-governmental individuals or groups: no-platforming campaigns; shutting down political rallies; blocking roads to interfere with political rallies; threatening vandalism and harassment to instill fear in opponents; death threats against outspoken apostates; inciting, threatening, or committing violence against cartoonists; and even murdering atheist bloggers.
In reality, every last one of these actions taken by non-government actors is deliberately designed to have a chilling effect on speech; many go well beyond chilling. To say that such things don’t effect freedom of speech is to take an exceedingly narrow view of why we require free speech in a free and open society.
The Broad View
Thankfully, there are plenty of freethinkers left who understand that the underlying rationale for an open marketplace of ideas applies to both governments and private citizens alike.
Preventing people from exercising their rights to freedom of assembly & free speech. #Leftists #UnAmerican… https://t.co/xHcAFv8x80
— Peter Boghossian (@peterboghossian) March 19, 2016
Feminist, left, Muslim & human rights activists protest NUS no-platform policy & defend free speech @sunny_hundal pic.twitter.com/6pGJoq59Ua
— Peter Tatchell (@PeterTatchell) March 17, 2016
On free speech for the people we don't want to stand with – ICYMI: https://t.co/QKKwofTYhC
— Russell Blackford (@Metamagician) January 19, 2016
The argument, in a nutshell, runs something like this: If we clear away the various barriers put up against the free exchange of ideas—whether by government or non-government actors—then our ideas will be forced to compete on merit. In a truly free marketplace of ideas, the good will drive out the bad over the long run. There is therefore no need to resort to shutting down speech, whether by force or by other means.