The Value of Free Speech A succinct look at the importance of the value of free speech and an overview of how and why one ought to defend it

I am afraid that I have some seriously bad news. Free speech is a choice and an admirable one but is not one that comes without consequences. Why? Simply put, one has to choose between being inoffensive and thus producing a safe space for all, including even the most easily offended, or instead to truly stand for the preservation of the value of free speech.

Free speech is often conflated with the related legal concept that merely protects the right of a speaker from being prosecuted by the government. Even there, however, there are certain topics that even the government does not protect, and I will cover those later on. However, the right to not be prosecuted is a severely narrow definition. Indeed, the legal definition of free speech is an abstraction that is built upon the far wider idea of allowing people to speak their mind and to enjoy freedom of thought. Private platforms like Facebook and Twitter do indeed have the legal right to remove content that they find objectionable but that is not a justification for the removal of said content in and of itself. Although many users of such platforms often resort to declaring free speech to be nothing beyond the narrow legal concept outlined above, it is nevertheless concerning that increasingly large corporations exercise their considerable and increasing power in order to remove content and thought that they find objectionable.

The act of removal of content from such platforms is widespread and is growing ever more common. Most recently, there was a mass purge of Twitter accounts of various personalities that were right-leaning. Rather than eradicating such controversial thought, the effect of this forced exile was to it in fact force such speech further underground – where it is more difficult to find, and where ideas grow ever more extreme. This concept is known colloquially as an echo chamber, and more formally as group polarization. What this means is that when people are forced into ever smaller groups of likeminded people, those likeminded people tend not towards moderation, but rather towards extremity.

Despite this, the decisions to remove content perceived to be objectionable by Twitter and the like are understandable. Free platforms such as these are driven by ad revenue, an industry I know well, having worked in it for the better part of a decade. Advertisers naturally do not want their sponsored content and messages to appear alongside controversial content. Given this, large content platforms, such as the major social networks, are under constant pressure to police their platforms and to boot contributors who do not fit into ad standards off their platforms.

With that said, a university is not quite in the same position as a content platform. In contrast to social media platforms, universities have traditionally generated the plurality of their income off the members of their own community – viz. from past and present students. Seeing as this is the case, such institutions would presumably have more freedom to allow more controversial speech. However, this has not been the trend of the past couple of decades. Instead of becoming the dedicated places where important discourse may occur amongst dissenting interlocutors, a crucially important thing for young adults beginning to formulate their worldviews, universities and other higher-education institutions in general are increasingly biased organizations that enforce a liberal groupthink. Universities, rather than being the place for heated debate and contentious discussions, are instead turning (or perhaps, are being turned) into safe spaces that coddle their members into believing in a false worldview which is monolithically liberal.

The debate then is whether a university ought to choose to foster debate and discorse where ideas from both sides of the political spectrum can be actively challenged, or whether the university ought to instead create an environment which is a safe space, inclusive and welcoming to even the most fragile egos. Free speech is a dangerous thing, indeed, because in its essence it means that no matter how controversial or offensive an idea or thought may be, it shall be allowed to be shared. One can coddle people and thusly prevent them from feeling offended or insulted and 'prepare' to stand for the value of free speech but if one does that, that’s all that supposed adherence is – make-believe, pretend. Of course, there are certain limits to free speech that need to be held for the sake of physical safety, rather than the safety of not having one's views challenged. Specifically, if one threatens to subject others to physical harm and proceeds to show genuine preparation to carry such acts out, such people need to be stopped. However, this is an infinitesemally small subsection of all speech and the line is currently being drawn far from this.

As it stands right now, despite empty declarations purporting to supposedly prioritize free thought and free speech, there are far too many things that are not allowed to be said in fears of causing others to feel uncomfortable. Just to name one example, this includes the act of 'misgendering' someone, calling out the incessantly expanding list of genders and sexualities as ridiculous, and so forth. Protecting only the speech that is politically correct and deemed to be uncontroversial is not a commitment to free speech at all.

So, what exactly is the proposed solution? Rather than prioritizing the feelings of groups of people that are perceived to have sensibilities of such fragility that they cannot handle any sort of criticism – allow people to speak their mind – no matter what they have to say. If an actionable threat is made, follow-up on it, but unless acted upon, even that should not be a crime. It is thoroughly insulting to the very people that one ostensibly protects by limiting free speech to hold that certain groups – homosexuals, transgendered individuals, and other minorities – have such delicate sensibilities and are so vulnerable that they would not be able to handle someone speaking their mind. If somebody is offended, then so be it.

A commitment to free speech must go beyond simply supporting speech that is commonly liked and appreciated. Such a commitment must encompass the objectionable, the provocative, and the downright offensive and hateful, in order to be meaningful.

Speech that is objectionable might be that way for good reason, but according to Hall: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." A stringent adherence to the value of free speech is a decision that will be attacked extensively from many groups that wish to shut down all dissenting voices. It is instrumentally vital that precisely in the face of such objections, one will refuse to back down and will continue to stand resolutely in favor of their commitment to the value that they had declared.

This is so because any sort of wavering or bending inevitably leads to increasingly limited speech; if one bends and disallows one topic from being discussed, those who are opposed to the value of free speech are sure to keep pushing further. By wavering, one opens themselves up to ceaseless attacks both for hypocrisy from pro-free-speech activists and for anti-progressivism from the other side. Nay, the position must either be absolutely for the value of free speech. Otherwise, it is a meaningless statement – one that would rightfully be seen as simple virtue signaling and empty posturing. Pretending to stand for free speech and yet banning some forms of it is rightfully seen as hollow and as such, would be subject to even greater criticism than if a university failed to declare support for the value whatsoever.

Now how could such a value be enforced when it's sure to be met with attack? One must admit that certain groups view any sort of criticism as direct attacks and as such will doubtlessly attempt to object and eliminate this institutional commitment if it were to be adopted.

The answer for upholding it resolutely is relatively simple. Attacks on the value should be met seriously and adherence to the idea must be upheld even when subject to the strongest objections. Adhering to something that is universally accepted and praised is not a meaningful or praiseworthy act. On the other hand, it is principled and admirable to adhere to something even in the face of adversity and derision. It is easy to make a declaration that one supports something; much harder to actually uphold that commitment when under fire.

I am not so naïve to believe that I think that the decision to uphold free speech at the university will be met with universal praise. Such a decision will be attacked. It will be controversial. But what is right is often controversial, and the fact that controversy surrounds something does not make that thing wrong.

The right to freely speak one’s mind, I maintain, is more important than the right of another to not be offended. However, this is a choice that is ultimately up to each individual institution. What is clear is that each one must choose between the two, and any point between the two fails both sides. In closing, dedication to the value of free speech requires sacrifice. That is exactly why it is important.

© 2024 Bogdan ZADOROZHNY