Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A Few Thoughts on Free Speech


Apparently someone has made the news for suffering consequences for speech, or I've just gotten fed up with trolls claiming the same. So, to begin, what is freedom of speech?

For purposes of this post, let's call it the ability to say whatever you want without punishment.

But then, what is punishment?

Is being thrown in prison punishment?
Is being fired from your job punishment?
Is having your ability to speak taken away punishment?
Is losing your audience punishment?
Is being criticized punishment?
Is being thought of as "that dude who supports slavery" punishment?

Let's start with the first of these: is being thrown in prison punishment?

Well, intuitively, the answer would seem to be "yes". According to many people who have put a lot more thought into this than I have, the answer would also seem to be "yes". The exceptions made for things like slander or fraud or sedition are held to be limitations on the right rather than examples of where the right contradicts itself. If you get thrown in prison for what you say, you do not have free speech. That was easy!

Next, let's skip to the end. Is being thought of as "that dude who supports slavery" punishment?

Intuitively, the answer would seem to be "no". When you say things, you expect that people are going to form opinions based on it; one possible group of opinions they might form is opinions about you. Not allowing people to form opinions doesn't just protect you from being punished; it also keeps them from forming opinions. Another easy one! If this keeps up, the whole post will be over pretty quickly!

Is being criticized punishment?

Intuitively, the answer seems to be "no". Criticism tends to take the form of speech, so if free speech is a universal right, you can't restrict the right to criticize. Another quick one --

--hold up. Suppose the criticism isn't meant to counter speech, but instead to block it. Suppose that what someone actually said is being buried beneath out-of-context quotes or deliberate misinterpretations. Suppose that the "criticism" is actually a DDOS attack or a hack that knocks the original speech off the Internet. Suppose that the "criticism" is actually something like a threat to do unspeakable things to the speaker if they keep speaking. That seems like a pretty clear case of "criticism" that is not compatible with free speech.

Is losing your audience punishment?

Well, it's tempting not to rely on intuition after that last one, but the intuitive answer seems to be "yes". If a transmission is blocked, that's censorship even if no one goes after the actual broadcaster, right? If you can't be heard, you may as well have not spoken, right?

But what if your audience walks away on their own? Under most circumstances, no one has an obligation to listen to you. This is especially true if your audience would otherwise pay to listen to you, even indirectly; just because you have a right to free speech doesn't mean you have a right to paid speech.

Is having your ability to speak taken away punishment?

Intuition's batting 500 so far (or something, sports metaphors aren't my thing), so it's looking a bit sketchy. But let's give it a chance to turn this around. The answer seems to be "yes". If you lose your ability to speak, that's practically the definition of censorship, isn't it?

Well, suppose you're speaking using a platform someone else owns. Other people aren't obligated to let you use their microphones to speak to their audiences, no matter how much you beg them. Said audiences certainly aren't obligated to listen. Other people have a right to filter out noise and misinformation from their channels, and ultimately it's the owner of the channel who decides what counts as "noise" or "misinformation".

Is being fired from your job punishment?

So far, intuition's lost more than it's won. But this is pretty obvious. Being fired, that's the sort of thing that happens for incompetence, insubordination, mutiny, and so forth (or so I've heard). It's reprehensible that someone should be fired simply for voicing a particular belief! Even members of the Klan have a right to work!

So what happens when the speaker's job is to speak using the employer's platform? What happens when the speaker's job is to represent the employer? What happens when the speaker's job is to lend the employer their good name? In other words, what happens when an obligation to retain this person would interfere with the employer's free speech?
(These might seem like a distant hypothetical, but this is the era of the professional celebrity. Athletes and actors acquire assets by associating artifacts with their appellations. When you get paid to have a reputation and show up in an ad, saying something that damages your reputation, or even just having a relative who damages it, interferes with your ability to do your job.)

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