Whoever said that the answer to bad speech is more speech never had to run a modern website. I used to run my own web server for my blog, before I realized that I had better things to do than nursemaid a swarm of technical details and decided instead to pay a professional to do it well, and one of the things I had to do was maintain all this code that was there specifically to limit access. It was vitally important. I could be down deep in the bowels of the beast, monitoring all the incoming data, and the instant I would plug that ethernet cable into my server to connect it to the internet, literally within milliseconds it would be getting hit with pings — almost all spammers, and also lots of automated hacking code, looking for loopholes in my implementations of communications protocols so that bad messages could be uploaded into my machine to do them harm.
Every website, even the ones that assert the most devout dedication to the principles of free speech, are extensively filtered. From my personal experience, I’d have to say that less than 1% of the attempts to communicate via the internet are legitimate, or are sincere, honest attempts by a human being to talk to other human beings, and the bulk of the attempted discussions are spam and dedicated efforts to corrupt communication.
You don’t have to run a server to know this. Just about all of you use email; every modern email server has built-in traps to block spam. Gmail, for instance, uses some smart algorithms to detect and dispose of spam and you don’t even see most of the garbage that is trying to come through. You really would be drowning in noise without those filters.
It’s also the case in every instance of non-technological discourse in which you engage. Look at this room; I’m talking, and you’re all being so polite and not interrupting; no one is yelling at me, and none of you are suddenly standing up and announcing that you’d like to sell me penis enlarging pills. And then when the Q&A rolls around, you’ll all take turns. Of course we limit speech all the time by common courtesy and by formal rules of order. We could not have a civilized conversation without these rules.
The tricky part is establishing those rules. The naive free speech absolutist is neglecting the fact that the privilege of free speech has to come with the responsibilities of free speech. Every right has to come with a recognition of limits on those rights.
Some of those limitations are easy. For instance, you may have a right to free speech, but you don’t have a right to an audience. Here’s David Silverman, who just gave a ferocious talk advocating the importance of atheism, and I might think everyone ought to hear that…but that doesn’t mean Dave gets to show up at someone’s house at dinner time and harangue everyone with it. It doesn’t mean he has the right to show up at an Anglican church on Sunday and override the religious sermon with his far superior atheist sermon. He should have the right to set up an Atheist TV channel, so people can voluntarily tune in and listen to what he has to say, if they want to.
I think we can all agree that we don’t have a right to impose our views on others, but that it is a violation of the principles of free speech when others, governments or religious organizations or corporations, try to dictate what we may read or hear — that on the one hand, forcing people to read a message is wrong, but on the other hand, limiting voluntary access to media is also wrong. So when governments arrest individuals who express their rejection of religion, or when they shut down access to Twitter by all of their citizens because the state is being criticized, or when the press is corrupted and no longer questions the actions of the state, we can all agree that that is a violation of a principle that we consider important for the welfare and happiness of free people.
Not even that idea is without exceptions.
Here’s one big problem I have. Words have power. I shouldn’t even have to say this to people in an organization which believes strongly in the power of communication and persuasion and reason: we’re not promoting the cause of humanism with soldiers and tanks, but solely by telling people about the virtues of humanist thought, and encouraging open-mindedness and critical thinking and the questioning of dogma. And we all think that working within the framework of law and media is an effective and appropriate way to do that. At least I haven’t heard anyone suggesting that the world humanists need to start up a military arm.
But there’s often a curious asymmetry in how we think about this. Words have power, but we think everyone ought to be able to use this power freely? Really? There ought to be no restrictions on how words can be expressed? I don’t think we really believe that. We ought to recognize that, because it’s the only way we can properly develop rules and protocols for restricting speech.
Let me give you some specific examples where free speech absolutism fails.
Should creationism be taught in science classes? Many creationists literally argue that their freedom of speech is abridged when they are not allowed to teach their views in public school classrooms, to children. One of the most popular slogans of the intelligent design creationism movement is “Teach the Controversy” — they are arguing that the issues ought to be resolved by giving equal time to all sides, and letting the kids decide which is right. That really is a free speech argument.
I’m a teacher, and I have no illusions. If you give kids a choice between an easy answer that says all you have to do is believe, and that god did it is an acceptable alternative, vs. the complex answer that requires math and data and a rejection of the dogma their parents promote, most will happily accept the one that makes studying for the exam easiest. I also know that if we open the door to anything goes, then education becomes a matter of opening a firehose of noise on the classroom, and drowning the kids in chaos.
The answer is that we have to have criteria for determining what core ideas must be taught, and that we humanists and atheists have a pretty clear idea on that: we advocate for a secular and universal education, where the content is dictated by reality : if an idea is supported by the evidence and there is a clear reasonable path by which any reasonable person can arrive at a consensus, then we should teach that, and not the idea that is contradicted by the evidence. But even that answer is fraught: how do you teach poetry? And the creationists will reply that what must be taught is socialization and the proper place of the student in society, and only religion can give that. We could argue for hours over this issue, and we do.
Here’s another example:
Should rape and death threats be protected as free speech? This is a hot issue on the internets nowadays, and yes, people are actually arguing that using online media to harass, stalk, and threaten people is a free speech issue. And it is! If you’re a purist who believes that everyone ought to be free to create multiple pseudonymous accounts and deluge their enemies with racist, sexist, or abusive slime, then of course you’re going to demand that your right to do so may not be infringed. You’ll also make the same playground excuses we all heard as kids.
“Toughen up.” “Only crybabies can’t take it if they’re called a mean name”. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
These excuses are all wrong. Remember, words have power, and only abusers of that power will deny it. The victims of these abusers are already tough — it takes a thick skin to persist on the internet anymore — and they’re not complaining about one insult. They are drowning in the noise: technology has given bullies the power to deliver a torrent of abuse online with great ease, and unfortunately, most of the media are enablers of that bullying. Getting told once that you ought to be raped is annoying and infuriating; being told dozens of times every day is discouraging and repressive. I know way too many people who have been driven completely off the internet by free speech fanatics who flood all of their communications with hatred and abuse.
Just because I’m trying to be difficult today, keep in mind as well that some people find messages that their cherished religious beliefs are false to be discouraging and repressive. These are concerns that must be recognized; it is important that we don’t fall into the trap of glibly announcing that free speech is simply wonderful, all we have to do is talk to each other in the sunlight and reason with one another, and everyone will be won over by the side of goodness and logic and mutual respect. Because that won’t happen.
Should lies be protected as free speech? How do we deal with, for instance, faith healers? Their promises don’t work. They are so tempting to the weak and sick, though: when the choices are to undertake an agonizing regime of chemotherapy, against simply praying harder, there are many people who will understandably choose the latter course, because someone is lying to them about the effectiveness. How do we deal with advertising? It’s easy when the lies are obvious, such as the old campaigns in which doctors were recruited to endorse cigarettes, but what about ads that say beautiful women will find you irresistible if you swamp your body odor with Axe body spray and drink the right kind of watery beer? Don’t pretend that it’s all just caveat emptor and the weak have only themselves to blame — we’re all susceptible to psychological games, says the guy using an Apple iPad, because they’re really cool.
I think, and I suspect that most of you agree, that truth ought to be an ultimate arbiter — that what we ought to prize most is honesty and accuracy in our communication, and that it ought to be a human value to demand evidential support for any claim. It is important that we state our expectations up front and clearly, and that that value is a significant component in how we evaluate speech. But we also have to appreciate that that is not a significant component to others: that they may define truth by how well a statement can be reconciled to their holy book, rather than to reality.
To sum up my concerns about free speech:
You don’t have a right to an audience. This is a critical limitation of free speech right now, in a day when technology has made it trivially easy for abusers to circumvent the limitations of courtesy and protocol.
Words have power. Guns also have power; is unregulated access to guns the best path to a free society? We’re engaged in that experiment in the US right now, and I can tell you…no. Similarly, we have to recognize that words must be used responsibly.
Speech can do great harm. Words can enlighten and educate, but they can also oppress and mislead. As humanists, we must appreciate the importance of truth, and do what we can to stop the promulgation of lies.
There are no easy answers. A commitment to free speech is hard — and the easy answers are so attractive. On the one side we have the contingent arguing “You can’t say that!”, and on the other we have people saying, “I can say anything I damn well please, anywhere, anytime!”, and neither is right. We must be aware that the task is one of navigating between the two extremes.