The idea of free speech is used to defend all kinds of unpleasantness. I think it’s important to talk about what free speech means, and also what it doesn’t mean. It is vitally important to uphold the idea that no-one should be assaulted, tortured or killed for anything they have said. That’s what the right to free speech really means – that and not being locked up for holding a different opinion to your government.
Freedom of speech does not entitle a person to cause harm. In much the same way that you aren’t entitled to use freedom of speech to lie about products, commit fraud against people, pretend to have qualifications you don’t have, or sell snake oil, freedom of speech is limited by certain responsibilities. Inciting violence and threatening others isn’t covered by the right to free speech. Conspiracy theories can fall into a bit of a grey area here – people are entitled to question mainstream and government narratives. However, when lines are crossed that put lives in danger – as with the anti-mask brigade, we shouldn’t let the idea of free speech detract from the way this is basically selling us snake oil.
Freedom of speech does not entitle you to a platform. No one is obliged to give you a space, invite you to their event, listen to you or read your stuff. No one owes you a hearing. We all have the right not to listen or engage, not to support things. Any business or organisation that feels it may be harmed by association with your message is entitled to remove you from its platform. Freedom of speech does not entitle you to be part of any particular conversation, or to be engaged in debate.
Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. If people don’t like what you say, they are entitled to act in any way that is legal. This can include not buying your stuff, not inviting you to things, blocking, banning and counter arguing. It is not an attack on freedom of speech for someone else to use their freedom of speech to say something isn’t acceptable and should be shut down.
It’s not even an attack on freedom of speech to say that you should be stopped from speaking at events, online and the such. You can still speak. It’s just that no one may want to hear you. You may have to find somewhere more sympathetic to your cause, to express your free speech, but you still have the freedom to say whatever you like, within certain parameters.
We are not obliged to listen, to host or to accept people we disagree with. That’s not an attack on their right to free speech. There is no right to inclusion in debate. There is no right to be given a platform. There is no right to make people listen to you.
For anyone whose politics is rooted in kindness and inclusion, the way free speech is often misrepresented can become deeply uncomfortable – feeling that you have to allow and include things you consider to be full of hate and harm. So, it’s important to keep saying this stuff – a person is entitled to safely air their opinions. They are not entitled to have anyone stay around to listen and the right to free speech includes the right to say that what someone else is saying isn’t acceptable.