The Meaning of Free Speech in 2016

Free speech is one of the most contentious political topics currently in 2016, not just in Australia but around the Western world. Many critics of free speech declare that it’s a right to be a bigot, causes hurt and pain to others and used by privileged members of society to continue to oppress minorities and vulnerable groups. In Australia we see many laws in place restricting free speech on these grounds, the most widely known law is Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act preventing offence or insult on the grounds of race. There is also the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act in Victoria and the newly amended Discrimination Act in the Australian Capital Territory banning vilification on the grounds of a whole range of attributes. In the United States these sorts of hate speech laws cannot be enacted due to the First Amendment of their Constitution preventing Congress from passing any laws abridging freedom of speech. But that hasn’t stopped an anti-free speech movement occurring in that country with many millennials, for example, now believing that the First Amendment is outdated and should be abolished.

Libertarians and conservatives are united in opposing such restrictions. The reasons being that so called ‘hate speech’ laws are subjective. Meaning that what is termed ‘hate speech’ depends on the opinion of an individual, what you may think of as fair comment can be concluded as hate speech by somebody who is easily offended or simply just wants to use the law to silence an opinion they don’t like. This creates a fear of talking about certain issues in society for fear of the government taking action against them, publicly shaming them as some sort of bigot and causing a major disruption in their life.

This suppression of speech by governments leads to two consequences. The first is if certain issues are not allowed to be debated they end up being raised by the extremes in society. Therefore what could have been a civilized debate now turns into a much more vicious and damaging dialogue than what would have occurred if free speech had just been allowed in the first place. The second consequence is that it gives people who are prosecuted under hate speech laws more attention than they normally would and they are often turned into heroes and martyrs because of the government trying to censor them and their voice and legitimacy is often amplified. It’s for this exact reason that most right-wing individuals use the term “regressive left”, as left-wing policies exacerbate the problems they try to resolve. It can also be argued that allowing hate speech also allows us to identify who holds particularly repugnant views so we know which people or organisations to avoid or to keep an eye on. Isn’t better to know who the bigots are rather than being ignorant about who secretly holds animosity towards certain groups?

However, where this agreement ends amongst libertarians is that suppression of free speech should be opposed when it’s conducted by the government. Since the government has a monopoly of force on the whole of society, by passing a restriction of speech it denies every citizen the ability to have any type of platform on certain issues. Some on the right believe however that private actions of citizens suppressing the freedom of speech of others is not of concern to libertarians since all citizens still have the freedom legally to speak freely. Libertarians justify this under the principle freedom of association and that to force every citizen to accept the speech of others would be another violation by the state of individual liberty.
Some examples of private actions supressing speech involve the boycotting and shaming of businesses who for example may have traditional values on social issues as a way to force them to recant those views or drive them out of business. A technology company denying a user their platform to broadcast to others because they do not like their views, this is common for those with conservative or nationalist views. Getting someone fired from their job due to a view they expressed publicly even though what they said had nothing to do with their ability to perform their job. Some libertarians believe that this is even a healthy development in our society as it is a free market solution to deal with those who have hurtful and offensive views. A common catch-cry is freedom of speech does not imply freedom from criticism. Also that if we do not have private regulation of speech then it invites the government to come in and use police force.

Yes you can technically be a libertarian and have this view about the treatment of speech by private citizens and companies. But that is only treating libertarianism as a political theory based on the relationship between individual natural rights and the government. However just because we have the legal freedom of speech does that still mean we are living in a free and open society? The examples I listed above would not be evidence of a free society, however I concede this is a deviation from libertarian theory. What I am an advocate for is a new school of thought called cultural libertarianism, where everybody should have the freedom to express their views and we should have open and fearless debate with each other without trying to shut the other person down using various tactics. Do we really want to live in a society where everybody is scared to share their opinion even if there is no sanction from the government?

Social media sites which nearly every modern western person uses have speech codes which all take a progressive stance on social issues, and those on the other side of those issues are often suspended, censored or banned from the platform. Should these companies legally be allowed to do this? Of course, but should they act on this legal right is the question that needs to be considered? A social media site is one which invites you to share your thoughts on what’s happening in the world, interact with friends, family and meet like-minded people. If you are prevented from sharing your opinions because they are unpopular then that goes against what we all thought was the point of such a platform. If YouTube and iTunes for example decided to take down all media content that their management disagreed with, that would be a huge disenfranchisement of many people with certain views. Yes, you can argue that they could use a different platform, but not everyone is technically able to do this and they would also be able to reach less like-minded people and have a more limited means to express themselves. A truly free society would mean these companies would allow all voices a platform so that we all feel truly free to give our own opinions. If these social media companies want to allow only certain viewpoints on their platform then they should have a duty to fully disclose they are a private club and that there is a strict regulation about what you are allowed to say and that it is not a platform open to all members of the public.

If some libertarians are still not sold on the duty (not legal obligation) of companies to help be part of a free society how far are you willing to take it? Many companies for example are taking public stances in favour of same sex marriage, would this mean it would still be good for society if they fired all their employees opposed to the change? Should companies be able to cut off the electricity or internet to a customer who doesn’t agree with their political views? Libertarians find it difficult to defend the refusal of Christian bakers to bake gay wedding cakes, but if it’s a refusal to provide a service for somebody of a view they don’t like then they leap to freedom of association defence.

What I encourage all libertarians to do is to be what I term whole or all-round libertarians, which means you are not just political but cultural libertarians. Which means encouraging a truly free and open society where people are not afraid to share what they believe. Yes, you have the right to disagree with them and not associate with them but that doesn’t mean their life should be ruined in some way. A society where we don’t have to be as carefully spoken as politicians or public relations officers where we can just say what’s on our mind and it enters the marketplace of ideas to be debated. If you understand the harm that government censorship of speech can do to society, then the consequences private suppression of speech should also be clear to you.