How This Free Speech Thing Actually Works


A few months ago, Godless Mom posted a video explaining what free speech actually means. In summary, she explains that free speech means the government can’t prosecute you for things that you say. It does not mean people can’t be pissed off about something you say, or that a corporation can’t refuse to do business with you because you’re prone to saying bigoted shit. It just means the government can’t censor you or punish you.

Which is why I’m really disappointed that she recently wrote a blog post blaming the “playdate generation” for the outrage over #TheTriggering. She puts herself on a pedestal as having a “free range upbringing” which gave her a thick skin, while everyone nowadays is just offended by everything, including calling FtB’s very own PZ Myers “mommy’s special little man” with “Buzz Lightyear Band-aids.” She writes:

Well, I was raised in the sticks and stones generation, and from my vantage point, these people are nothing short of absurd. #TheTiggering was not aimed at offending people. The ultimate aim of anything defending free speech, is to protect our valued right to say what we want, even if it does suck. It’s about facing the fact that assholes exist and shit is not always going to go your way and the best fucking way to deal with it, is to “point and laugh at an idea” as Aaminah Khan so eloquently put it.

Now I’ve been corresponding with Godless Mom trying to explain all the complexities of the social justice vs. free speech debate (which shouldn’t be an either/or debate at all), including sending her a link to an article I wrote for about trigger warnings (which she enjoyed) and the latest episode of The Gaytheist Manifesto (which she hasn’t responded to yet). Forgive me if I’m misreading Godless Mom, but it seems as though she is jumping on the “SJWs are trying to take away our free speech” bandwagon.

It seems as though ever since Peter Boghossian went on The Humanist Hour to declare that many universities are now “held hostage by the Regressive Left” and that the current discourse over trigger warnings and microaggressions is the “PC Police’s” latest ploy to to suppress free speech, atheists online are split into two categories: those who think the hooplah over safe spaces is overblown, and those who think Big Brother is watching us. And as someone in the former camp, it’s really exhausting trying to explain all the subtle nuances of the debate to the latter camp.

For example, when the whole Richard Dawkins/NECSS thing happened, I got into an argument with someone on Twitter who not only thought that it was wrong for NECSS to un-invite Dawkins after he posted that crappy video, but that anyone who didn’t like the video was a crybaby. Now I can understand why some people think NECSS shouldn’t have uninvited him (this was before they re-invited Dawkins), but I find it odd that so many atheists are offended by the fact that I was offended by the video. I didn’t try to shut Dawkins’ Twitter page down, neither did I petition NECSS to ban Dawkins from all future conferences. All I said was it was a shitty video. Shocking, right?

Despite all the frustrations, let’s try to set the record straight about free speech, shall we? First, here’s what the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution actually says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

It doesn’t say privately operated conferences can’t un-invite speakers they find controversial, or that I can’t criticize something problematic, or that I can’t block anyone from commenting on my blog. It just means the government can’t limit what you say. That’s it! And yet, whenever I get into these debates, I have to whip out my pocket edition of the Constitution constantly.

I think the reason why all my friends are fighting each other about the free speech vs. social justice debate is that some people confuse having a legal right to say something with making a bigoted statement morally right. The two are not mutually inclusive. I may have a legal right to make prejudiced generalizations and stereotypes about groups of people, but having that legal right does not make my bigotry morally right. In other words, if I blog something racist, and PZ Myers decides to drop me from FtB, he’s not violating my First Amendment rights.

The same goes for blocking people from commenting on my blog. I welcome different opinions in the comment section because 1). there’s always a chance I could be wrong about something, and 2). I figure my readers are smart enough to defend their positions on their own. However, if you start dropping racist slurs, calling me names, or threatening to harm someone on my blog, I will block the fuck out of you. I’m not preventing you from commenting on other people’s blogs; I’m just throwing you out the same way a bartender would throw out a violent drunk.

Now of course the whole safe space thing can go too far. For example, the incident with Maryam Namazie and Goldsmiths University. Given her outspoken criticisms of both Islamism and the far-right anti-immigration group Pegida, Namazie was not “creating a climate of hatred,” as Goldsmiths Feminist Society claimed she was. Also, to be fair, the Pew Research Center claims 40% of Millennials support censoring offensive speech. which led Matthew Facciani to write, “Suggesting that the government should intervene when something is offensive is a clear violation of free speech.” But once again, Facciani is talking about the government intervening, not privately operated organizations or individuals.

So for all of you who think I’m coming to take away your First Amendment rights, don’t worry. It’s not as bad as you think. I might call you the fuck out on it and tell you why that thing you just said dehumanizes an entire group of people, and I might block you from spewing your bigotry on my blog, but I’m not going to prevent you from speaking elsewhere. Got that?


  1. Robert,+not+Bob says

    The issue is clouded by hypocritical ideologues who hold to the standard “whichever argument supports my side at the moment is correct”. And while everyone is entitled to freedom of speech, I think those who explicitly aim to eliminate it-like Islamists-should be viewed as having a higher standard to meet before being taken seriously on that subject.

    • says

      Because apparently if you need years of therapy to recover from years of bullying and torment–and I mean kids literally surrounding me and laughing at me–then you’re a pussy. *shrugs*

  2. says

    Because you’re mommy’s special little man, and you have the Buzz Lightyear Band-aids to prove it.

    Well, I was raised in the sticks and stones generation

    Wait… How old does she think PZ Myers is? She’s a late term Gen Xer, does she really think that’s the “sticks and stones generation” and that the Baby Boomers were soft and coddled?

    I also don’t know anyone who was outraged over #TheTriggering. Everyone I follow on Twitter or in blogs found it ridiculous. A bunch of assholes who are outraged that they can’t just be assholes without other people calling them on it decided to stand up for their freeze peach by being the same assholes they always are.

    • says

      Godless Mom tends to believe if you don’t like a thing, then it’s because OMG UR A SJW WHO GETS OFFENDED BY EVERYTHING GO BACK 2 UR SAFE SPACE!!!!!!!!

  3. Aleksandria says

    When I see people talking about our alleged “crybaby generation” or whatever inane descriptor they use for it, talking about how people were so much tougher back in the old days (defined as whenever they were a kid), I can’t help but remember the words of the founder of Synanon cult:

    “Synanon came into existence because our society is composed of mama’s boys and daddy’s little girls who have been innundated by attempts to produce nothing but agreeable sensations in them. Character disorders, quite simply, are people who had too strong a dose of “mother love” and were never properly housebroken by fathers.”

    Whenever this “sticks and stones” generation was, it apparently was even further back than the 1950’s and 60’s. As such, I’m inclined to believe these infantile depictions of my generation are wholly without merit as apparently the “good ol’ days” when people ate nails for breakfast and everyone beat back mental illness and trauma with a can-do attitude and a plucky disposition were criticized in much the same way. I’m sure any day now, the modern inheritors of Synanon’s teachings (such noble people as gay conversion therapists and “troubled teen” rehabilitators) will lead us into a new golden age of children roaming free through the neighborhood, an idyllic world that was apparently laid low by todays 20-somethings when we were in diapers.

  4. says

    I was promised Buzz Lightyear bandaids. WHERE ARE MY BUZZ LIGHTYEAR BANDAIDS?

    However, if that’s her picture, and if she’s of an older generation than mine, I’m willing to forego the bandaids in return for her magic rejuvenation secrets.

  5. says

    In a society where the government is relatively careful not to tread on free speech via censorship or coercion, we should not be surprised to see subtle social control employed (in lieu of officially sanctioned force) so as to prevent unwanted messaging. There is far more to an open marketplace of ideas than simply keeping the government out of the picture.

  6. doublereed says

    Well, bringing in the First Amendment only talks about what the government can do to curtail free speech. Like Free Speech as a principle should be thought of as more than just the law.

    When people implicitly threaten others, shout them down, or employ the Heckler’s Veto, that also curtails someone’s free speech, and generally speaking the First Amendment doesn’t really apply to those cases. Many times, but certainly not all, when people get speakers banned or uninvited (rather than allowing them to speak but challenging them and protesting them), that’s employing the Heckler’s Veto.

    No one argues whether the University or Conference or whatever has the right to ban or uninvite someone, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a free speech issue. Universities imo should have a general culture of challenging students on their beliefs, and invited speakers are almost never implied to speak for the university.

    • doublereed says

      Other simple examples of private individuals curtailing free speech:

      DDoS attacks, cyber-vandalism, hate crimes and intimidation, corporate surveillance of employees (and even customers), mass-intimidation over social media, literally not letting people talk, frivolous lawsuits to silence critics, etc. etc.

      We want to make laws and systems in place to prevent this kind of behavior. They should be considered bad things in of themselves, but also because they have a chilling effect on free speech.

  7. says

    Examples of situations where I agree that the principle of free speech applies:

    When Milo Yiannopoulos and Based Mom appeared at UMTC to give crappy speeches about a subject they know nothing about. Hated the idea, they were spreading misinformation, but yeah, they were brought in by a student group with their own allocated money and donations. The only permissible behavior was to allow them to speak, although student protests are also permissible.

    Creationists rent out the campus science buildings for evening meetings. They are public facilities owned by the state, they have a uniform policy for leasing them out to citizens, and the creationists paid. So you can’t complain. Well, you can complain, but you can’t block them.

    A case where no-platforming someone was a good idea:

    Condoleeza Rice was going to speak at the university, and students and faculty raised holy hell and got her to back out. Bad violation of the principle of free speech? Not at all. She was going to be paid $150,000 to give a 20 minute talk. The U could pay two faculty for a year for that! So not only is she a war criminal who doesn’t deserve that kind of money, but the payment would have been a kind of endorsement of her views by a cash-strapped public institution.

    Now if she’d been invited by the campus Young Republicans, who were paying for it with donations of wealthy republican asshole donors, fine. Or if she’d paid the leasing fee to use the auditorium for the evening, also fine. But free speech does not obligate anyone to stuff your pockets with cash for your views, or to give you time and space for nothing.

  8. says

    Oh gods, “sticks and stones” is just the most ridiculous argument ever. It’s as if most of the 20th century, the whole of psychology never happened.
    Also, if your whole self esteem comes from being able to bear things that make others break* should just hold their hand under the tap and turn on the hot water. That way they can prove their personal endurance without being assholes to others.
    It’s OK to be weak. It’s OK to require help and a bit of consideration. And it’s OK to want Buzz Lightyear bandaids

    *though I always suppose that those pride themselves on this have never been through much to start with. Especially when talking about school bullying I have the nagging suspicion they were on the bully side of the equation.

  9. Vivec says

    That feel when people think that “no platforming” is a thing that exists. No one is obligated to give a platform, time, and money to every loon with a manifesto.

  10. wzrd1 says

    Free speech is an essential thing in a democracy, however, as with all rights, there are limits. One cannot conspire to commit a crime, one may not conspire to overthrow the government, one cannot incite a riot, one may not spread lies that injure the reputation of another, one may not declare a false emergency where people could be injured or killed are just a few examples.
    Free speech that is unpopular and controversial is protected by the government, as it should be, however, the populace may have something to say in response. That could range from cat calls, hoots and derision to riding one out of town on a rail.
    That said, common decency should guide one’s speech and if one is discussing something that could trigger emotional distress, one should avoid or warn about what is to be discussed. There is no law that says that, it’s just simple human decency. Indeed, safety comes to mind, as some triggers could trigger a suicidal impulse or a homicidal one.
    I have a few triggers myself, largely involving my prior career in counterterrorism. I’ve had many a death threat, some also adding in my family’s demise. Such threats ended poorly for the one making the threats, as I react rather poorly to a threat. I am, thankfully, retired from that occupation, but I do have my share of nightmares.
    You can imagine how delighted I wasn’t when one tea party type threatened to break into my home, rape my wife, then kill everyone in the house, while doxing me. I patiently explained my background and the fact that if the individual ever had the poorest judgement in human history as to enter my home uninvited, he’d depart in two body bags and only if I were feeling charitable would a firearm be used and charitable feelings would be unlikely.
    Wisely, that individual decided to end the conversation on that high note and never attempted to enter my home and I got what I always desire – peace and quiet.
    Triggers can activate a retreating response or an aggressive response and it’s readily apparent which response I have.

    As one who did live in the sticks and stones era, I’ll simply say, sticks and stones may break my bones, but whips and chains excite me.
    That one shuts down the majority of jugheads out there. 🙂

    Life is a continual exercise in psychological warfare. 😉

  11. polishsalami says

    The problem I have with the disinviting of people like Dawkins and Germaine Greer is how these things have been handled.

    Dawkins’ Twitter shenanigans are notorious, and Greer has been making dodgy statements about trans folk for years, so how come they were considered respectable commentators one day and dangerous the next?

    One argument may be that the Binx cartoon was a ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ situation, but anyone familiar with @RichardDawkins knows that the poor old camel passed from this world a long time ago. I’m not buying it.

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