In today’s age of SJWs, hatemongers and outrage-mongers, I thought it would be appropriate to clarify a few things regarding what freedom of speech actually means and what does or does not constitute censorship and thus, by extension is a violation of free speech. The reason for this is that I now have heard, one time too many, people say something god-awfully stupid on this matter.
Let’s start with a simple formal definition and then follow up with some examples and some counterexamples, like where this a class and I your teacher. Freedom of speech means, or at least it should mean, that nobody should be subject to violence or threats thereof, or confiscation of property, for expressing any opinions that are not themselves direct instructions to or threats of violence. To avoid future misunderstandings let me first clearly state that this is a principle that I believe should be defended and never compromised with, even on the edge of Armageddon.
That being said, I think it might be interesting to look at certain cases and ask ourselves if the principle has been violated there and whether censorship is going on or not.
First consider the case of the American talk-show host Rush Limbaugh referring to a certain female advocate for better access to birth control as a slut and a prostitute back in 2012, here’s a link. This led to all kinds of people boycotting companies advertising on Limbaugh’s show to make them pull back their sponsoring of him and ultimately try to make his show so unprofitable that it was canceled. People like Bill Maher, someone I usually respect, then came out and said that while they didn’t like Limbaugh they were in favor of freedom of speech and didn’t like that Limbaugh’s freedom to express opinions was now compromised. In addition to this various conservatives of course also came out with rants about how “the liberals” don’t respect freedom of speech and are in favor of censorship.
This is simply not the case. Boycotting sponsors means not buying their products or services, and anyone has the right to refrain from buying a product or service for any conceivable reason or for no reason at all. This does not infringe on Limbaugh’s freedom, the boycotters didn’t violently attack him or as far as I know threaten to do so. Freedom doesn’t mean that people can’t react to what you say in any way, it just means physical force cannot be a part of their response.
Contrast this to when a certain feminist Youtuber was scheduled to speak at a university in Utah in 2014 and the university had to cancel her speech because some halfwit threatened to show up with a gun and shoot people. This was a clear threat of violence, not a boycott but a threat of actual lethal force. Obviously this is a direct attack upon freedom of speech and thus something that should concern regular citizens and law enforcement authorities alike.
Then we have the case of various internet news sites where users can post comments, take everything from the New York Times to the Daily Mail. Some of these sites only allow comments on certain articles, depending on whether or not they consider the topic discussed in the article to be too controversial. Some of these moderate comments according to different standards. This leads to visitors not always being able to express certain opinions about the contents of certain articles.
It is of course understandable that visitors to said sites may be frustrated by this, I myself have often read an interesting article, come to some insight that I wanted to share and then been disappointed when finding out that comments were disabled for that article, wondering why they had chosen that particular article to not allow comments on. However, people who says things like “there’s censorship going on on site X, they do not respect freedom of speech, what complete and utter [expletive]”, seem to me to have missed an important point. Freedom of speech does not mean that others have to provide you with a platform, the owners of a site are free to publish or not publish material entirely at their own discretion. As long as the owners of the site aren’t doing what they are doing because they have been threatened by some maniac, or legislated against by the government, all is fair game, you may then in protest start your own site and there post whatever you want but you cannot claim that your freedom has been violated.
Another case of freedom of speech actually being threatened would be when the writer Salman Rushdie received countless death threats for writing a book. Death threats and incitements to murder are violations of a person’s freedom in a way that a boycott, or refusal by a publisher to provide a platform doesn’t come close to. The fact that some individuals bought copies of his book and burned them didn’t infringe on his freedom, nor did the fact that people said that they hated him. But the death threats most certainly did.
Obviously not everyone is going to be satisfied with the standard I’m endorsing here, they may feel that there are ways of suppressing certain opinions that don’t technically qualify as violence or violent threats, but that are still objectionable. My point then is that such cases would be a matter for civil society to address, and not the state.
This distinction is quite important, and part of the larger project of separation of state and culture. Whether Rush Limbaugh should be boycotted or not would be for the marketplace of ideas to decide, whereas the question of whether or not some goon should show up at his studio and make threatening noises isn’t up for debate at all. That later case is the kind of scenario for which we maintain police forces.