Freedom of speech is really important.
So you should probably understand what it actually means.
You’re not alone! Judging from how often freedom of speech is misunderstood on the Internet, a lot of people must have been asleep in civics class. In fact, that rampant misunderstanding is exactly why I created this handy site.
But freedom of speech really is important—important enough that we should try to get it right. So here’s what freedom of speech does (and doesn’t) mean:
Freedom of speech means that the government cannot forbid you from expressing your views. #
Freedom of speech is about the rights that are (or aren’t) afforded to citizens by their government. Given the following scenarios, see if you can figure out which is “relatively free speech”, and which is “not free speech”:
|Country||Situation||Free Speech or Not Free Speech?|
|North Korea||If you say something bad about Kim Jong Un, the jackbooted secret police will electrocute your genitals forever||???|
|United States||If you say something bad about the President, the jackbooted secret police will probably ignore you||???|
If you said that state-sponsored genital electrocution is not free speech: you’re correct!
Note that the only actors in these scenarios are (1) governments, and (2) citizens of those governments. That’s because freedom of speech is a political and legal concept. It’s about the degree to which the government tries to control the speech of its citizens, through legal and extra-legal means.
Freedom of speech doesn’t mean that other people can’t criticize your speech. #
Consider this exchange:
You: [undoubtedly shrewd and insightful comment about politics or whatever]
Internet Rando: You’re wrong! I disagree! I’m offended! Screw you!
You: Oh, yeah? Well, you can’t silence me. I happen to believe in a little thing called freedom of speech, you fascist.
In this exchange, you are an idiot. (The other person might also be an idiot, but we’re talking about you right now.)
No one has curtailed your freedom of speech in this scenario. Not even close. Your original shrewd, insightful comment is still right there, for all the world to see. You are still free to speak. If you’re so inclined, you can spam Internet Rando with 3,000 follow-up comments explaining exactly how wrong he is, in excruciating detail, with footnotes and illustrations. You can still post your opinions on your blog, paint them on a billboard, print them on flyers, tattoo them on your face, whatever. No one’s stopping you.
In fact, here’s all the other person did: they said that they disagreed with you.
Think about this: why is it a violation of your “freedom of speech” when Internet Rando states an opinion that you don’t like (“You’re wrong!”), but not a violation of his freedom of speech when you state an opinion that he doesn’t like? How does that even make sense?
What you’re basically saying there is that only you are entitled to free speech—and that everyone else has to either agree with you, or shut up. And that’s, like, the opposite of freedom of speech. The price of free speech is that you have to tolerate other people’s speech that you don’t like—just like they have to tolerate yours. (Remember: “tolerate” does not mean “refrain from criticizing”. Their criticism of your speech is also free speech. That’s how it works.)
When someone disagrees with you—even if they’re a total dick about it, and obviously have no idea what they’re talking about—that does not violate your freedom of speech. Because they haven’t prevented you from speaking.
Freedom of speech does not oblige others to provide a platform for your speech. #
If I run a website that accepts user comments, or a newspaper that accepts letters to the editor, or a radio show that takes calls from listeners, it is my right to pick and choose which contributions I wish to publish. Just because the Washington Post receives a letter to the editor that’s full of neo-Nazi propaganda, or 1,378 pages of erotic Garfield fanfiction, or a billion random numbers, doesn’t mean they have to print it. It’s their paper.
I mean, if you think about this for ten seconds, it doesn’t even make logistical sense. Disk space and bandwidth on a web server, space in a print newspaper, or airtime in a radio program are all limited. If any would-be contributor could whine “but what about mah fuhreedom of speech?!” whenever a website or paper declined to publish their contribution, then the publisher would quickly go bankrupt from the cost of providing a platform for every crank who demanded it. Moreover, the publisher would lose all editorial control over the content of their publication: it would become a public graffiti wall that no one would want to buy. Competitors, or even individuals who had a grudge against the publication for whatever reason, could shut the publication down by simply demanding that they publish an article consisting of ten trillion trillion asterisks, in the name of “freedom of speech”.
But these logistical absurdities are beside the real point, which is: you can’t force someone else to publish or endorse your speech. I can’t command you to paint “[YOUR NAME] EATS CHEETAH BUTTS AND THINKS THE CHEETAH BUTTS ARE MIGHTY TASTY AND HE LOVES THEM” in ten-foot-high letters on the side of your house (even though I’m pretty sure this is all true and accurate), and you can’t command the owner of a website to post your opinions.
When a website deletes your comment or bans you from posting, that does not violate your freedom of speech. Because they haven’t prevented you from speaking. (They’ve only prevented you from speaking on their website. Which is totally their right.)
Freedom of speech is not absolute. #
You might believe that it should be, but the actual laws that are on the books disagree. The classic example is that “you can’t shout ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater”.
But there are actually many limits to freedom of speech. Here are just a few examples:
Libel and slander laws
Restrictions on the claims and language that manufacturers can print on their packaging (or requirements that they must include certain information, such as nutrition facts or safety information)
Prohibition of hate speech or incitements to violence
HIPAA and doctor-patient confidentiality laws
Laws against sharing national secrets
Laws against lying under oath
You can probably think of more. The point is this: even in relatively free and democratic societies, there are limits on free speech.
Calm down, please. Unless government thugs are currently bashing down your door to drag you away to a re-education camp, your freedom of speech is still in reasonably decent shape. Try not to make ridiculous noises about “fuhreedom of speech!” just because someone disagreed with you, or decided that they’d rather not have you at their Internet party.