Why I’m Not a Free Speech Absolutist

Let’s get one thing out of the way for those in the back: I don’t think you should be arrested, shot or ‘disappeared’ for having a subversive or politically incorrect opinion.

I don’t even support the current hate speech rules in the UK where you can be arrested for being a racist. I say this as a black woman that was once beaten to the point of unconsciousness by two guys that objected to the colour of my skin.

Yet I still believe that calling racist names should not be an arrestable offense. Simply because if you ban that, you may as well ban all offensive names. If someone calls you an idiot, well that’s offensive isn’t it? Should that be banned? No.

America has slightly more nuanced laws where the First Amendment rights enshrined under law, but you cannot incite actual violence. In Finland, they have laws against what they call ‘ethnic agitation’, where you cannot incite or entice “to genocide or the preparation of genocide, a crime against humanity, an aggravated crime against humanity, a war crime, an aggravated war crime, murder, or manslaughter committed for terrorist intent, or to serious violence.”

The trouble with some of these laws however, is the way they are worded often leaves room for interpretation.

Of course, like most people, I think that for the most part, free speech should be enshrined or guaranteed under the law.

But I’m still not a free speech absolutist.

Why?

I don’t think you can be absolutist if you’re against defamation and incitement. Those are my only two objections to free speech.

Have you ever heard the slogan: sticks and stones can break your bones but names can never hurt you?

But, if you get trampled to death because of an imaginary fire, you’ll find out pretty quickly that words do have consequences. Ok, so that example may sound far-fetched to some.

Fair point. Let’s look at some others:

Stephen Dure, 34, also known as Stevie Trap was jailed two years ago after falsely accusing another man, Paul Farhad, 42, of being a “violent psychopath” and a paedophile.

Mr Farhad got bricks through his window, lost his job and multiple people attempted to petrol bomb his home and threaten his family.

Online trolls threatened to rape the people and bizarrely, the animals he lived with, and his friends deserted him as a result. I’m not telling you this to drum up sympathy for an old case, but to highlight cases in which mere words posed a major threat to life and family. All because of a few words typed on social media.

Stephen Dure was actually jailed for making the false claim. I’m not a free speech absolutist, so I fully agree with the incursion on his free speech. There are cases where you can’t just ignore nasty words and switch the computer off. Not when those words send a brick through your window.

It sounds crazy but Mr Farhad was one of the lucky ones. He was certainly luckier than Bijan Ebrahimiwho who was killed because his neighbour thought he was a peadophile.

I don’t think a newspaper, malicious Facebook poster or other entity should be able to accuse you of being a terrorist, or paedophile, or any other type of criminal without evidence. There are way too many other examples of what happens when false accusations go dreadfully wrong.

In other words, I’m not an absolutist when it comes to free speech.

I can hear some of you saying “nobody thinks that. And if a newspaper were to do that, you could sue them for defamation.”

But that’s my point actually.

Yelling fire, or suing for defamation when wrongfully accused, puts a limit on your free speech. It might not get you poisoned in a Putin-style retaliation, but it certainly places a barrier between you and anything potentially defamatory that you might want to say.

That’s not my only gripe against 100% free speech, however.

I’m also against incitement.

But isn’t incitement just a left-wing, communist excuse for arresting people that are a bit un-pc?

Hmmm, not quite.

Banning nasty name-calling and hateful words (if that’s all it is), puts society on a slippery slope, whereas banning incitement stops that hate speech from creating mass violence.

The Clear and Present Danger Test

But how do we differentiate between incitement and mere hate speech?

If someone says they hate me, that does not immediately put my life in danger.

Who cares if my feelings get hurt? Well, of course I do, but I don’t expect you to.

But if someone were to encourage and influence other people to physically attack me— then that creates immediate danger for me.

Examples of Incitement

An example of this can be seen in the Stewart v. McCoy (2002) case. In the case, defendant Jerry Dean McCoy had been accused of advising gang members on how to organize themselves. His instructions had included advice on beating members of rival gangs. Now some would consider his ‘instructions’ as free speech. Indeed, at the time, the court of appeals did. I would consider it incitement.

Another example of incitement was Islamic cleric Munna Hamza who was convicted of three counts of encouraging terrorism as per the 2006 Terrorism Act at Woolwich Crown Court. He was convicted of terrorist violence against the government of Bangladesh because of several posts he wrote dating from 2015. Within his posts, Hamza had reportedly “called on others to commit serious acts of violence in Bangladesh against the Bangladeshi Prime Minister and government.”

In 2011, self-confessed Neo-Nazi William White was convicted of inciting violence. He used a website he ran to solicit another person to injure the jury foreman in the case of Matthew Hale, the leader of a white-supremacist organization known as the World Church of the Creator. Hale was found guilty and sentenced to 40 years in prison for soliciting the murder of a federal judge in Chicago.

The above are just a few examples where mere words resulted in a conviction. You’ll notice that in all of these cases, it wasn’t just a case of some communist getting their feelings hurt. It wasn’t about some weak snowflake being offended. It was about leaders of unfortunately powerful organizations using their influence to incite acts of violence against other people.

Incitement is where you deliberately and systematically seek to bring harm to a person or group of people. Hurt feelings don’t come into it. It is about actively persuading others to commit a violent crime — usually by giving a combination of false information, specific instructions and inflammatory speeches to whip others into a frenzy.

What Is Meant By Clear and Present Danger?

In the early 1930s, Republican Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr was a civil libertarian on the supreme court who is credited with protecting free speech particularly during the first World War and the period of hostility to dissent that followed the war.

He drew a fine line between protected and unprotected speech with his clear and present danger test, in which he coined the now-classic example of an individual falsely shouting “fire” in a theater as an example of speech that was “substantively evil.”

What Free Speech is

Free speech is the right to say whatever you want without fear of arrest. A country where you have free speech is one that should protect you against government intervention. It is one where you do not have to worry about the government kicking down your door for saying the wrong thing.

That’s it. I could add a little more ‘fluff’ to this blog by adding some additional definitions and interpretations, but I think you get the point.

What Free Speech Is Not

“Some people’s idea of free speech is that they can say anything they want but if someone says anything back to them it’s an outrage” ~ Winston Churchill

This is the bit that confuses some people. Whenever I hear a news story about someone getting fired for being racist, homophobic, or just generally unpleasant, there are usually loads of comments claiming their speech has been violated.

But if I decide not to let you onto my online forum because of something you say, your free speech has not been violated, unless I also get you arrested.

If you call someone a racist name, and they call you racist, that doesn’t violate your free speech either, unless they also call the cops.

If an employer fires you for something you say, that is not a free speech violation.

Unless the government is coming to handcuff you because of it, then your free speech has remained intact.

Freedom of speech does not imply freedom from responsibility.

For example, if I call my boss a d*ckhead, or I start verbally insulting my colleagues, then I’d also be fired — regardless of whether it had bigoted undertones or not.

Now some would call that an incursion on my free speech, but I’d simply interpret it as the employer exercising his right to get rid of troublesome employees.

Of course, whenever you mention racism, even if only in passing, you always get the usual cries of “I’m tired of being accused of racism!”, “what about black-on-black crime”, “why are you saying that only white people can be racist” (hint: I’m not), and all the usual defensive and deflective replies to a single word, with no context.

I’m not here to explain to those in the back why racism, any racism, by any race is a bad idea. Nor am I here to get on the hamster wheel of online arguments to persuade those even further in the back that racism does in fact, exist.

I use it as a mere example of one of the many hot-potato topics that usually triggers the most aggressive free-speech comments.

And if it seems like I’m stating the obvious to you, then I’m preaching to the choir. If you wholeheartedly disagree with my What Free Speech is Not, I refer you to the section: What Free Speech Is.

What About Cancel Culture?

Cancel culture is a particularly insidious and toxic trend in which online bounty hunters look for a new target to name and shame.

Various celebrities and ordinary people have fallen prey to this disgusting trend over the years, with JK Rowling, Matthew Yglesias, Doja Cat, Alexi McCammond and countless others joining the list of cancellations.

The worst cases are when someone makes an allegedly racist or insensitive tweet a decade earlier, and then ends up losing their jobs ten years later, because some online trolls were actively looking for reasons to be offended. The best is when those same trolls that cancel others, get cancelled themselves.

This happened in 2019 when an Iowa man named Carson King went viral after holding a sign on ESPN’s “College GameDay” asking for donations on Venmo to pay for his “Busch Light Supply.” It led Venmo and Anheuser-Busch to pledge matching donations. When he received the money, he donated it to a local children’s hospital.

Aaron Calvin, a reporter working for Des Moines Register set out to cancel King, and found two offensive tweets the 24-year-old had sent when he was 16. King lost his partnership with Anheuser-Busch as a result. However, it was soon discovered that Calvin ended up losing his own job with the newspaper when it was found that he had sent racist tweets himself.

Cancel Culture Isn’t New

Cancel culture is thought to be a left-wing, modern politically-correct trend which seeks to cancel free speech. The truth is Cancel Culture in some form has always been used as a censorship tool.

The only thing that has changed today is that it is the politically incorrect rather than the politically correct who are the targets. That doesn’t make it OK. It’s still a slippery slope.

You only have to look at the kind of books that were cancelled or outright banned in the 1960s to understand the origins of cancel culture. Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 lesbian revelations in The Well of Loneliness was outlawed in the 1930s, while Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls was outlawed in Ireland in 1960. The US has also forbidden all sorts of things from Ulysses to The Catcher in the Rye. Books by black poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks were banned in the 1960s, while celebrities such as Muhammed Ali were banned and lost sponsorships after speaking out against the Vietnam War. Famous historical figures such as Martin Luther King were also effectively cancelled back in the day, and repeatedly arrested for having subversive views.

There are many more examples on all sides of the political spectrum of course, but you get the idea.

The notion that someone gets cast aside for not following the status quo is indeed a very dangerous one.

What we have today is a modern twist on cancel culture. While books are not being burned, individuals are systematically picked off by the professionally offended.

Thankfully, what we see is that cancel culture is usually not being perpetrated by the government. It is being perpetrated by faceless, online trolls who most likely have skeletons in their own closets.

Where Does Cancel Culture Fit On The Altar of Free Speech?

If free speech only protects you against government intrusion, what do we call it when it is perpetrated by online trolls? Answer: trash. I consider cancel culture as a unique form of hate speech, which is also trash.

My attitude towards cancel culture itself is this: I don’t think you should be arrested for it, unless it leads to violence but that doesn’t mean that you cannot address and expose it. I’ll have a separate blog on the toxicity and insanity of cancel culture coming up soon.

Actually, I think all of this demonstrates the principle of free speech rather well. If someone is using their free speech to cancel you, the best response is to not only expose them but to set off a debate about the insidious nature and psychology behind cancel culture. Why is it that people are willing to sacrifice hours, sometimes even days or weeks by pouring through all of the tweets someone made 10 years ago, on the off-chance they may hit the jackpot?

I can’t even be bothered to go through 10 minutes of my own inane social media posts, let alone 10 years worth of someone else’s. I’m just too busy. And I am far from perfect myself. I don’t think there’s a human being alive who hasn’t offended someone, somewhere. My views may be considered alright by many today and subversive in 5–10 years.

I’m not a free speech absolutist — but let’s be clear: if speech does not fit into the context of incitement (clear and present danger) or defamation, then it should not be cancelled. Racist names, rude remarks and politically incorrect tweets do not meet either of those definitions. #Let’sCancelCancelCulture

Why Free Speech Isn’t Black or White

I hear this a lot: “You’re either for free speech, or against, there are no inbetweens.”

“If you believe in placing limits on free speech, you’re either a communist or fascist.”

And if you believe either of those 2 statements, then you don’t understand the nuances of free speech, and most probably of life. Oh and I’m not a communist. Or a fascist.

No. If you object to me because of my skin colour, political views, gender, or any other reason, I want you to have the freedom to verbally announce your stupidity without fear of being arrested.

But if you take it a step further and incite others to physically attack me or print false information about me that poses a danger to myself or my family, then yes, I think you should face the consequences of doing that.

Being anything other than a free speech absolutist is considered heresy in today’s world. And understandably so.

It conjures up images of people being disappeared, or arrested for ‘saying the wrong thing’.

But let’s be real. I don’t think anybody sane wants a world where people are shot for having a subversive opinion.

What I believe is that in the light of everything I have said already, there are just 2 things standing in the way of free speech, which puts a dent in absolutism for me:

Incitement and defamation. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less.

It’s Not About Sticks and Stones

Sticks and stones may not break my bones, but they come with consequences.

And I don’t mean that in a snowflake ‘hurt feelings’ kind of way. Fuck my feelings.

Stokley Carmicheal put it best when he said:

“If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he’s got the power to lynch me, that’s my problem. Racism is not a question of attitude; it’s a question of power.”

And therein lies the rub. If what you say does not have the power to cause me physical harm, then shout it from the rooftops for all I care. If your words do have the power to cause me physical harm, then that’s where I draw the line.

Here’s a crude example: you want to use the N-word, go ahead. I may have a few choice words of my own towards you, but I won’t call the cops. Not even in the UK, where you can be arrested for such (which is a free speech violation).

But if you want to incite others to kill me and my entire family and your words have the power to do just that, then yes, I believe your free speech should be sacrificed on the altar of law.

And if you doubt that words come with consequences, just imagine what would happen if a newspaper accused you of committing the worst crime imaginable and printed your name, picture and address. They’re just words right? No harm can from them…..unless sensible limits are placed upon them.

I, for one, am 100% OK with those limits.

And that is why I’m not an absolutist.

Now It’s Over to You

What do you think? Are you a free speech absolutist? Do you agree with this blog, or do you think it’s trash? If you agree — let me know below. If you disagree — let’s debate! Regardless of which side of the fence you’re on, I want to hear from you.

Leave your comment down below, and I will try to respond to as many as possible.

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Jan

Jan

Jan is a journalist, copywriter and human rights activist who has worked for regional newspapers, marketing agencies across the world.