Can I Support Free Expression Without Being Conned by #FreeSpeech?

Debate around free expression today is fraught with confusion about true intentions and genuine meanings. Persistent and aggressive challenging of who has the right to define free expression, and an often intentional blurring of that definition can arrest discussion or send argument flying off into hyper-critical and combative corners of social media where it is often scattered and dispersed by bias and filters.

This seems like the perfect moment in this posting to declare these thoughts as my own individual expression. My words here are not intended to represent the views of the organization I work for or any of its members. If anyone wants to know “what the writers think about all this” you’re going to have to ask a whole bunch of individual writers. And if you get a consistent answer, may I suggest you haven’t asked enough writers. As long as I’ve been working in writing and publishing, I’ve debated the “do not pass” line on restrictions of expression. I’ve found it has never been a bright and immoveable line.

My own thinking about free expression has been relentlessly provoked and challenged by the roiling political climate of the past few years. I‘ve found myself questioning and even doubting longheld beliefs and what I had assumed were bedrock principles. It has been an intense and frightening time, one that has alternately sent me into quiet rooms by myself to escape the turmoil, and then back out of those rooms into the vast and ever-expanding universe of other people’s opinions. And for me, my exploration of that universe has provided a growing bright point in the void. The diversity of new-to-me voices I’ve discovered over the last few years makes me feel wonderfully small. I’m frequently ashamed to be coming so late to an understanding of these voices, but it’s been marvelous to sit and listen nevertheless. Here are the ideas I’m now wrestling with, and here’s what I’ve observed while wrestling.

The issue I’ve long fought for, free expression, is too easily co-opted by individuals, groups and corporations with no genuine interest in dialogue, or even in expressing any sort of comprehensible opinion. They turn free expression, the variously protected right of an individual to express one’s opinion without fear of censorship, into #FreeSpeech, an all-purpose distraction for sucking up public oxygen and claiming instant moral high ground. Whereas free expression remains a cherished democratic right and one of the most important tools of the truly oppressed, #FreeSpeech is frequently weaponized and asserted in the public space to maintain a rotting status quo, or worse, to encourage physical conflict and violence. So, a racist rally of intimidation and incitement that ends in violent death has #FreeSpeech attached to it by those who would deny that right to someone kneeling quietly to protest racism and violent death.

In the legal space, a #FreeSpeech claim is often conjured out of air to steamroll over the rights of individuals standing in the way of corporate interests. For instance, the equating of search engine results listings or internet piracy with speech, about which I’ve written in the past, is a cynical corporate co-opting of genuine expression concerns. When every regulatory restriction on corporate excess becomes “censorship” through convoluted and disingenuous legal rhetoric, we dilute genuine free expression concerns. Similarly, if we conclude that law and order restrictions on the willful spreading of hate and its attendant violence are an attack on #FreeSpeech, does benign communication stand a chance?

In the climate created by violent confrontation, it is increasingly important to distinguish between free expression and #FreeSpeech, to not be fooled by a kneejerk appeal to first principles into providing unintended cover for a monster known to be beyond reason and respect. Modern-day Germany understands the evil that is Nazism. Angela Merkel, one presumes, will never be moved by insincere appeals to #FreeSpeech into dialing back Germany’s deeply considered hate speech laws.

I‘ve been working professionally and privately for the cause of free expression for over twenty-five years. I’ve had plenty of uncomfortable arguments with folks in which I’ve defended expression I find personally revolting — careful always to distinguish between the despicable ideas promoted by that expression and the expression itself. I’ve often felt the need for a shower after those arguments, but I truly do believe vile expression is defensible on principle, and that its only real antidote is more expression. I go back to my gloriously expanded reading list. It is appalling and depressing to confront the persistence of hate and intolerance in our world. And it’s inspiring to view the garden of brilliant writing that has sprung up to protest and fight that hate. Writers remain my heroes.

For me, free expression is about communication. Full stop. It’s not about intentional intimidation, physical confrontation, trespass, or incitement. Good, democratic, legal structures make careful distinctions along that spectrum from free expression through intimidation, and hate speech to violence. And there will be disagreement, of course, about the various lines drawn on that spectrum. In a democracy, there is no end of aggressive boundary pushing within the law, sometimes with the very definition of speech itself — witness the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court decision in the United States which, much to the disgust of campaign finance reformers, widened the definition of “speech” to include massive corporate political donations. For some, money is now speech. We see the door such thinking opens — a passageway to paid social media persuasion linked to foreign espionage and interference in the elections of sovereign democracies.

I believe that, legally, anyone should be allowed to say, write, depict, or dramatically perform whatever they want without fear of state suppression or intervention, but only up to the line of hateful incitement. Canada is among the democracies defining that line with hate speech laws that are themselves regularly debated and challenged. When those laws are applied, I myself watch carefully to make sure expression is not conflated with hate, and vice versa.

I also try to be mindful of instances where my own words might trespass. I fail at that sometimes, and when I fail I apologize for my failure. I may have a right to be wrong, but the right doesn’t excuse the wrongness. I don’t believe the cherished right to expression comes with an all-powerful shield against social consequences, and I also don’t believe the world necessarily owes me a public platform or venue for that expression. So, while I find the filter bubbles of social media problematic, I don’t think blocking twitter trolls is censorship. Say what you want, no-one else should be forced to listen to you, and they certainly don’t have to cede any of their digital real estate to you. In a sphere where “anonymous cowards” and twitter bots are actively encouraged, restricting personal access can be an act of self-preservation.

Especially today, when there has never been greater access to the tools with which we express ourselves, I believe we must sift carefully and distinguish between actual expression and other acts that are not speech. Should a permit for public demonstration carry with it the right to physically intimidate the public around the demonstration? Do we really need to ask that question?

Where is the line between vile speech and coded hate? I believe it is somewhere on the spectrum between genuine free expression and cynical #FreeSpeech. Responsible democracies patrol that spectrum and draw a line.