Some Thoughts on Free Speech

My brother Adam posted something on his blog yesterday that spurred me to write down some thoughts I’ve had about free speech lately.

Adam often comments on the Opinion Talk blog run by our local newspaper, The Fresno Bee. Recently, one of the editors posted a request that people who participate there refrain from using personal attacks in their discussions. This prompted a comment from someone named Brian Murray, who wrote, “Sounds like suppression of free speech,” and thus precipitated a lengthy conversation in the comments on the post about free speech and the proper methods of argumentation, among other, subsidiary topics. Not all of the comments were friendly, but Adam correctly points out that he stayed civil and rational where others failed.

After reading that conversation, I had some thoughts, which I posted as a comment on Adam’s blog. But they were so lengthy and substantial that I decided to share them here, too. Without further ado:

That guy Brian is right that they are limiting his free speech, but they are not limiting his right to free speech.

The right to free speech as provided by the First Amendment is narrow and circumscribed. It only applies against the government and it only applies when the speech is “constitutionally protected,” which generally means it contributes to a constitutionally meaningful discourse. (So the Supreme Court has established things like “fighting words” and “obscenity” that are not protected speech, and in the case of defamation, we have a complicated tissue of rules to balance between the right to disparage and the right to be free from false and damaging disparagement. Holding up a sign that says “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” is apparently not constitutionally cognizable speech.) In practice, that means we have scads of limitations on our free speech.

Depending on how you look at it, we have far more limitations on our freedom to speak than we have extensions. For example, there are economic limitations (I can’t afford to speak my mind in a nationally televised advertising spot), customary limitations (I’m not allowed to say certain things in certain company), linguistic-ideological limitations (I’m not “allowed” to say things that our language, as controlled by our society, does not allow me to communicate), and practical limitations (I’m “allowed” to say things that other people don’t understand, but if they don’t understand them, I can’t do anything about it). There is no legal recourse for those limitations: you cannot get somebody else to subsidize your speech, you can’t force people to let you say things in their presence that they don’t want to hear, you’ll have a hard time escaping the “box” of the dominant ideological paradigms, and if people don’t understand you, you cannot force them to.

All those limitations are limitations on free speech—they’re just not constitutionally cognizable limitations. But most people have a standard for freedom of speech that is much wider than what is constitutionally cognizable, and they are only vaguely aware, often unconsciously, of the non-legal limitations I mentioned above. So when the people who run an online form like Opinion Talk say, “Don’t use personal attacks,” they receive a response like, “Hey, you’re limiting my free speech!” That’s what Brian does when he asks, rhetorically, “Are there rules to Free Speech[?]” The answer can only be an unequivocal yes.

Whether there should be “rules” to “free speech,” and what they ought to be, are other questions, and difficult to answer.

Where this can be troublesome is when the non-legal limitations are employed, either overtly or covertly, by people in positions of power, whether governmental or not (like moderators of online discussion forums). The classic literary example is Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which the government actively works to pare down the language into something that no longer expresses anything meaningful. Since the particular expressivity of people’s thoughts is generally confined to the language they have to express them in, that kind of program essentially destroys free speech by non-legal means, but makes it possible for the government to say, “No, you can still say whatever you want.”

In my view, we have seen some of that, though not so obviously or systematically, from our government during the last few years. When they insist on using certain words like freedom, terrorist, insurgent, good, evil, patriotism, homeland, war, etc., they control the rhetoric and limit what people can effectively say. Since we attach so much political and emotional baggage to those words, if you try to disagree, you look much worse than perhaps you ought, which creates a chilling effect on disagreement and dissent. This is dangerous to freedom because there is no legal recourse against, say, the Bush administration, for its word-choices. They create a de facto limitation on free speech, especially for people who are not aware of what is happening with the language, to whom it does not occur that there may be different ways to talk about the issues with more nuance. For those people, their ability to think about the issues is hampered by the language in which the issues are presented to them. That, in my opinion, is the most insidious threat to free speech of them all.

I think Brian has an inkling of that, but he expresses it imperfectly when he calls the limitation (which is really just a suggestion, because the stated policy does not include enforcement) a “socialist” one.

The other commenter [Adam] interacted with, Wayne, is a good example of the Orwellian tendency when he suggests that the logical coherence of speech can (and perhaps should) take a back seat to its “entertainment” value. While he clearly believes he has a “right” to say whatever he wants (since he sees your criticism as “rule-mak[ing]“), so long as it is entertaining (one wonders what he thinks of illogical non-entertaining speech, or whether he believes that illogic is intrinsically entertaining), his position is essentially, “Let’s batter all the meaning out of language. Then we can all say whatever we want because it won’t matter what anyone says.”

Despite Americans’ acute sense of “free speech,” which is far vaster than their legal right to free speech, few of them seem to have gotten much further along in their understanding than what Mark Twain suggested over a century ago: “[I]n all matters of opinion, our adversaries are insane.” You can see that pretty clearly in the comment thread you linked (and in most comment threads online). But when people can move past that informal “rule” and begin to do as Jim Boren suggested—”you punch a hole in the other person’s logic rather than call them names”—the concern about suppressing “free speech” ceases to be an ideological counter-”argument” in specific conversations and regains its position as a political and philosophical topic. In other words, rather than responding to the limitation against personal attacks by complaining that his “free speech” was being limited, Brian should have addressed the specific limitation at issue—as many of the other commenters did. When he simply complained that his free speech was limited, he substituted ideology for reason and that emptied all the meaning out of the idea of “free speech.” For him, “free speech” just became a tool to get his way.

And, ultimately, isn’t that the root of the problem? When we use language and discourse as means of control rather than means of communication, we devalue our ability to think, which is the quintessential human quality.

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