• Narrow and Broad Conceptions of Free Speech

    Last night, former SINner Russell Blackford had a poke at Western society for failing to coalesce around a unifying concept of free speech.

    Part of the problem here may be that there are at least two distinct and divergent notions of what free speech is and why it is to be valued, one much broader than the other. The view we take will have ripple effects throughout all discussions about speech and how we treat those with whom we disagree.

    The Narrow View

    The narrow conception of free speech is popular among social justice activists; in their view only the government is capable of interference with free speech.

    For a timely example, consider this conceptualization of free speech from one of the newly onboarded authors at Freethought Blogs [emphasis mine]:

    free speech means the government can’t prosecute you for things that you say. It does not mean people can’t be pissed off about something you say, or that a corporation can’t refuse to do business with you because you’re prone to saying bigoted shit. It just means the government can’t censor you or punish you.

    Along the same lines, we have this concise definition from Aoife O’Riordan of The Orbit:

    Freedom of speech is this: you won’t be arrested for expressing your opinion. That’s all.

    Similarly narrow in scope, we have the following definition from Paul Zachary Myers [emphasis mine]:

    Wingnuts really do not understand the concept of free speech at all. Revoking those appearances was not a denial of the right to free speech: free speech does not mean you are owed a high profile platform and a bullhorn to declare your position; it does not mean you are given big bucks to speak. It means the government is not allowed to use its privilege and power to silence you.

    Consider also this tidbit from Amanda Marcotte [italics in original]:

    Free speech entitles you to:

    Say what you want to without fear of government censorship or retribution.

    And finally, from social justice blogger Miri Mogilevsky we have the following:

    …the right to free speech–and the rest of the First Amendment rights–constitutes a restriction on the government, not on private individuals or institutions.

    The tactical advantage to taking such a narrow view of what constitutes free speech is that doing so makes it easy to justify any non-governmental efforts to shut down undesirable speech. For example, social justice activist Sam Ambreen sincerely believes it is her moral duty to shut down the speech of outspoken atheist activists Richard Dawkins, Peter Tatchell, and Maryam Namazie.

    Since Sam is not part of the government, those who adhere to the narrow conception of free speech cannot criticize her no-platforming efforts on free speech grounds.

    The narrow view of free speech makes it impossible to criticize—on speech grounds—any of the following activities so long as they are carried out by non-governmental individuals or groups: no-platforming campaigns; shutting down political rallies; blocking roads to interfere with political rallies; threatening vandalism and harassment to instill fear in opponents; death threats against outspoken apostates; inciting, threatening, or committing violence against cartoonists; and even murdering atheist bloggers.

    In reality, every last one of these actions taken by non-government actors is deliberately designed to have a chilling effect on speech; many go well beyond chilling. To say that such things don’t effect freedom of speech is to take an exceedingly narrow view of why we require free speech in a free and open society.

    The Broad View

    Thankfully, there are plenty of freethinkers left who understand that the underlying rationale for an open marketplace of ideas applies to both governments and private citizens alike.

    The argument, in a nutshell, runs something like this: If we clear away the various barriers put up against the free exchange of ideas—whether by government or non-government actors—then our ideas will be forced to compete on merit. In a truly free marketplace of ideas, the good will drive out the bad over the long run. There is therefore no need to resort to shutting down speech, whether by force or by other means.

    Your thoughts?


    Category: Free Speech

    Article by: Damion Reinhardt

    Former fundie finds freethought fairly fab.
    • Brenda Weber

      I can’t help but think this is a result of how we as a people have divorced ourselves from our government.

      Government isn’t an entity in and of itself. It is nothing more than the physical manifestation of our collective will. To assume we AREN’T the government means the responsibilities we burden the government with no longer apply to us, personally.

      It’s a shame to see potential allies so gleefully throw away all the ideals that we as a people hold so dear as a citizenry that we have built them into the highest laws of the land.

    • The narrow view certainly opens the door to all sorts of efforts to silence those with whom we disagree or regard as offensive, including outright intimidation. Some of the tactics we are now seeing from the regressive left remind me of what the so-called moral majority tried to do in the 1980s.

      At the same time, I fear that the notion of good ideas necessarily replacing bad ones in a free market of ideas may be naive. As much as I want this to be the case, I am not entirely sure that it is the case. After all, there are plenty of bad ideas that are not only still around but have a disproportionate influence on hearts and minds (e.g., religion).

      • I don’t believe religion has had to compete in a free and open marketplace of ideas until very recently (in the U.S.) for roughly the following reasons:

        When I was in elementary school, we all thought that everyone was Christian. When it came to our classmates, we were mostly right to think this. Most of our classmates were being raised by Christian parents and instructed to have Christian beliefs. Most of us had been told that we were Christian from birth; we were not given any choice in the matter.

        It was easy for us to demonize atheists because we had never met anyone we knew to be an atheist, and we had virtually no idea what atheism meant. We were told that atheists were evil and that they wanted to harm us. We believed this because we had no reason not to. It came from people we trusted, and we had no experiences that conflicted with it. It is already difficult to imagine children having similar experiences today. The rise of the Internet has made the sort of ignorance from which we suffered much less likely.

        Read more: http://www.atheistrev.com/2016/01/future-trends-expect-more-secular.html#ixzz43XIcSNDH

      • Good point, and I can’t argue with the source! Even though direct “attacks” on religion are still relatively new, I think that alternatives such as freethought have been around for long enough that there has been at least some competition – just not nearly enough. I guess the marketplace of ideas concept is bound to be rather slow, especially when a bad idea has been entrenched for so long.

      • This discussion dovetails nicely with the topic of the OP. Even after taking government coercion off the table, there remain plenty of ways to keep heretical ideas out of the marketplace using the ordinary tools of social control. One of those tools is the notion that questioning religious dogma leads to immorality and should be considered taboo in polite (Christian) society. Personally, I didn’t even allow myself to seriously ask these sort of questions until around graduate school.

      • I am becoming more interested in the variety of non-governmental forms of social control people are using to suppress the expression of ideas they do not like. I suppose their use is inevitable, but it seems to me that there are some serious downsides for all of us here. I don’t think that any of us should be deprived of the opportunity to encounter and engage with heretical ideas.

      • Every week brings news of a new and creative way for non-government actors to prevent opponents from getting their message out to a willing audience. Did you hear about the activists who reserved auditorium seats with no intention of showing up to listen?


    • Otto T. Goat

      I suspect those who say freedom of speech only means “you won’t be arrested for expressing your opinion” wish it were the case I could get arrested for expressing my opinion.

    • David Wilford

      Unpopular ideas have a tough time being heard, usually for good reason as they’re often bad ideas. Holocaust deniers generally don’t get a platform at a conference of WWII historians, for example. Those who want to no-platform Dawkins over his past statements are certainly free to try and convince conference organizers, universities, clubs, etc. to not invite him and diminish his status in the atheist/skeptic community accordingly. I think P.Z. Myers has lost some of his stature in the same community due to his confrontational online persona, and has been no-platformed in a less conspicuous way. But both Dawkins and Myers still get platforms to speak from, and are free to blog, tweet, etc. as much as they like. So for me the “no-platforming” issue is just politics as usual.

      • “P.Z. Myers has lost some of his stature in the same community due to his confrontational online persona, and has been no-platformed in a less conspicuous way.”

        I’m going to need at least a data point or two on this one. Which conferences do you have in mind?

      • David Wilford

        It’s my impression that his speaking schedule is less full than it used to be. So no obvious no-platforming, but fewer invites. Here’s one source you can peruse on the subject, here: http://lanyrd.com/profile/pzmyers/sessions/

      • Just to be clear, when I talk about no-platforming, I’m really talking about attempts to persuade an organization to withdraw a platform from someone they have already invited to speak. The only known attempt to publicly no-platform PZ failed.

        By contrast, no-platforming campaigns against Richard Dawkins, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Maryam Namazie have succeeded.

      • David Wilford

        Understood. I do think Myers has no-platformed himself with his vow that he won’t speak at any event that also involves Abbie Smith.

      • Even some of those I truly admire made similarly regrettable vows in the heat of the Atheist Rift Wars.


    • TheEdgeLord

      My thoughts? A non-discussion. Either you subscribe to enlightment values, or you don’t.

      If you do, you understand the concept of free expression to permeate societies for their own good and for the advancement of honest public discourse and understanding, OR, you somehow think that “free speech” is something the government randomly pulled out of its pants without any context or history, just to declare that it wouldn’t interfere with it, but that anyone else can continue to shut down other people’s free expression as much as any old oppressor.

      I propose that only 1 of these 2 alternatives makes any sense whatsoever.

    • Joe Jordan

      I enjoyed the article and content and admit your view of free speech seems much better than the more narrow views I have probably argued for in the past.

      In your final paragraph though you said, “In a truly free marketplace of ideas, the good will drive out the bad over the long run.” This reminds me of one of the “truths” that your review of “Sapiens” discussed being taught almost religiously. Do you believe this is a “truth” or just usually can be given an educated enough populace and a long enough time line? Surely thousands of lines of humans have died out following bad ideas.

    • TheSh¡tLord

      Statist/Authoritarian: “Free Speech” is a concept conceived by the government, which chooses to allow citizens to engage in selected acts of speech without punitive legal repercussions.
      Individualist/Liberal: “Free Speech” is a fundamental principle by which a society organises its public discourse, and by extension a fundamental individual right protected from interference by any government.

      ..boils down to:
      If you believe that open speech in its entirety is a net good for society, it should become a general principle in people’s lives.

      If you believe that open speech in its entirety is a net bad for society, it should be closely monitored and (at least) socially controlled, in order to become a net good.

      What we’re really talking about is the distinction between a philanthropic vs misanthropic worldview. Choose your side carefully.