• Narrow and Broad Conceptions of Free Speech

    Last night, former SINner Russell Blackford had a poke at Western society for failing to coalesce around a unifying concept of free speech.


    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.


    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.

    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.


    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.

    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.

    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.


    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.


    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.

    Your thoughts?


    Category: Free Speech

    Article by: Damion Reinhardt

    Former fundie finds freethought fairly fab.