As far as I am concerned, a person’s right to free speech ends at the point where they start harming others. All freedoms need to be boundaried by an obligation not to cause harm. If defending the right to free speech doesn’t recognise this, it becomes a tool for promoting and enabling abuse.
Sometimes our ethical choices aren’t simple. But, in a choice between defending someone’s right to free speech, and defending someone from threats, harassment, intimidation, distress and so forth, it should be pretty obvious which way to go. People should have to deal with the consequences of their actions, and calling that out is one thing, and the threat of violence is quite another.
If everyone has the right to freedom of speech, this also means that we all have the right to tell people their words aren’t acceptable. Any one of us is allowed to tell someone else they should be silent. We all have the right to say that someone else’s opinion is invalid, ill founded, intolerable. We aren’t cancelling someone if we disagree with them, and we do not owe them our time and consideration. Demanding to be debated is a technique that appalling people use to try to legitimise themselves and make others listen to them. No one is obliged to go along with that.
Here are some considerations when deciding who to amplify and who to silence…
Doing nothing always supports bullying, oppression, abuse of power and the status quo. It is not a neutral choice, and we know it isn’t Druidic. Druids spoke to kings and sometimes got onto battlefields between armies.
If someone is causing no harm, or acting to challenge harm done, or reduce harm, and they are inconvenient to their government, we should not allow that government to silence them. In the UK, the desire of the government to protect statues from people challenging over racism is a case in point. We should always consider challenging it when a government tries to stop someone from speaking freely.
If a person is inciting violence or promoting hatred, they are not entitled to speak freely. If a person is lying, or promoting a belief that is harmful then we should protest against them. No one is entitled to a platform.
If in doubt, look for the power balance. The person with a TV presence, newspaper column, microphone on a big stage… this person has freedom of speech and you as an individual do not have the power to cancel or censor them. If they use their platform to complain that they are being censored, they are not being censored, just argued with. They are not inherently entitled to that platform.
On the flip side, many people go unheard. Many people are spoken about and spoken over. Amplify people who are working for justice and inclusion and who have no platform. Listen to people who are marginalised and ignored. Actual censorship tends to be subtle, and works by treating people as though they do not matter, do not exist or cannot speak for themselves. When did you last see a Rromani person on TV speaking about the issues they face? When did you last read a newspaper column written by a refugee?