A Note on Free Speech

As they say, with great power comes great responsibility. Freedom of speech is one of the greatest powers we grant to one another. Misuse of that power is therefore one of the greatest crimes, and should be treated as such.

The entirely worthless and reprehensible Westboro Baptist Church has a motto: “God hates fags.” It’s sick and malignant and hateful and utterly false. And the members of that so-called Church know that their motto is all of these things.

This is a great example of my criterion for distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable speech: the agent must have the ability, the means, and the opportunity to know whether an utterance is true to the best of their knowledge. And only those most egregious infractions, repeated without regret or explanation, can be silenced. But silenced they must be. WBC is one such case.

If WBC instead said “The deity in which we choose to believe holds that all homosexuality is immoral, and requires us to act accordingly”, then any reasonable person would be constrained to accept the claim as legitimate free speech.

See the differences? Those are the differences between legitimate and illegitimate free speech.

Some may claim that “God hates fags” must be acceptable free speech because it’s only a shorthand for some longer and clumsier version. But that’s not right. WBC members know that their motto is hateful, inflammatory, and intended only to insult and demean people. The evidence is readily available and incontrovertible. They maintain their motto with intent to harm, like driving a bamboo shoot under society’s fingernail.

Others may claim that causing offence is insufficient grounds for limiting speech. I agree. But it’s not about offence; it’s about the reason why offence is felt. In the case of WBC, the harm caused by continued use of their motto is easily demonstrated. Not only does in cause deep psychological stress, it incites discrimination, marginalization, harm, and violence — these are the things that matter, the things that must be stopped by limiting free speech. They are systemic effects: the more people speak such repugnant utterances on the one hand, and have to hear them spoken on the other hand, the deeper the societal divide will become. And the deeper the divide, the easier it becomes to normalize repugnant utterances, and the larger the group of people willing to sink to that level. Without a way to dampen this feedback loop, it will spiral out of control.

Still others will argue that stricter limits on free speech will castrate meaningful academic and intellectual undertakings. This is pure nonsense. I have used a thoroughly repugnant phrase more than once in this article, not to cause harm but to stop it. I am using that phrase here not because I endorse it but rather denounce it without reservation. This is easily understood by even the most cursory consideration of the context of this essay. We can and must talk about “bad things” to help stop them from happening. Just as we must talk about murder with reference to actual murders to explain why it is immoral, so too must we talk about repugnant speech by using actual instances of it to explain why it’s immoral. If properly implemented, the kinds of limits on free speech that I endorse will in no way limit intellectual discussion of important topics. Indeed, such limits will help create environments where people can feel comfortable saying questionable things without being wrongly accused of inciting hatred or causing harm.

Yet others argue that limiting freedom of speech is a “slippery slope” into Orwellian totalitarianism. This too is nonsense. There are no slippery slopes, only slippery people. That is to say, it is only due to the shortcomings of individuals that practices slide away from intended prescriptions and toward ultimately harmful outcomes. All we need is plain, clear, quantified, and justified criteria, and a means by which to interpret the criteria for cases that will fall into the “grey areas” of any regulatory scheme.

Finally, some people do not believe anyone is trustworthy enough to decide whether a speech act is protected or not. “Who will decide what counts as free speech?” they ask. But it has nothing to do with who; it has everything to do with howhow do we decide whether a speech act is protected. If the process by which we make such decisions is open, carefully described, and well documented, and if the information regarding specific cases is available to external scrutiny by third-party, arms-length, expert arbitrators, then it doesn’t matter who decides, because every decision can be verified to any reasonable standard.

Which brings me back to my proposed four-part criterion. An utterance ought not be protected as free speech if:

  • it is demonstrably false with respect to the best available evidence, and
  • the utterer has the ability, means, and opportunity to learn that the utterance is false, and
  • the utterer, having been made aware of the falsehood, repeatedly makes the utterance, and
  • the utterer consistently represents the utterance as true.

This criterion is based on a few simple principles: (a) truth is always better than falsehood, (b) people make mistakes, and © we can learn to be better than we are.

I have for two reasons intentionally omitted any reference to the harm one may expect to result from repeated utterance of falsehoods. Firstly, I sincerely believe that all falsehoods that are represented as truths are harmful. Secondly, harm is a spectrum of phenomena that manifests in different ways and to different degrees in different people; there is no simple way to describe it here. Clearly, the degree of harm caused would have to factor into whatever consequences might be imposed on those who would violate a free speech restriction, but that’s a topic for another day.

This kind of restriction on free speech acknowledges the reality of human nature while embodying the ideal of a society based on truth and giving people opportunity to learn from their mistakes. Most importantly, though, it provides the kind of damping feedback needed to prevent the systemic chaos that some individuals perpetuate whether they intend to or not.

This kind of restriction also flies in the face of the unfettered, quasi-religious notions of unconstrained free speech commonly held in countries like the US. But it’s exactly that kind of extreme unconstrained speech — combined with an abysmal education system and an unhealthy worship of individuality — that have over the last half-century turned the US into a cesspool.

There are other countries, like Sweden and Denmark, that also have minimal restrictions on free speech; but they have both a superior education system and a cultural sensitivity to the complexities of social systems. So long as those countries can sustain these things, they’ll probably be fine. But without some checks on their free speech, they risk becoming just as fetid in a few decades as the US is now.

Sure, it would nice if we could live in a self-sustaining utopia where everyone was rational and well-informed and sincere and caring. We could all enjoy completely unfettered free speech then.

But we don’t live in a utopia. The only chance we have of ever making the world any better is to be entirely intolerant of the liars, the wilfully ignorant, the trolls, and the narcissists. And we can’t do that without having rules in place to promote meaningful, truthful, and empathetic communication.



Engineer, designer, professor, humanist.

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