It’s so tiring hearing clown after clown stick a metal cone in a frozen peach and honk it. Just as annoyingly, some will assert that those of us sick of this clown schtick are taking the position that merely because no action is taken by the government, one can be certain no issue of free speech exists.
No. Wrong again.
The oldest operant constitutional limit on any national government’s ability to interfere with public expression is the First Amendment of the US Constitution. For some reason, FA protections do tend to get confused with free speech rights more broadly*1. It isn’t generally those criticizing the FreezePeach crowd who make that error, however.
Freedom of speech and of expression are a cluster of closely related ethical principles. The core idea here is that active suppression of the expression of others is an ethical negative that can only be justified when that suppression can be directly linked to a greater ethical positive. Punishing the display of and trade in child porn is an obvious example where suppression of the expression can be directly linked to ethical positives that far outweigh this relatively small limit on speech rights.
The anti-FreezePeach crowd*2 correctly recognizes this. Conflict between the FreezePeach crowd and the anti-FreezePeach crowd typically revolves not around whether or not a government is performing an action (non-governmental actions such as an employer firing an employee can also be punishments and can also tend to suppress speech), but around a frustrating inability of too many in the FreezePeach crowd to understand the difference between inflicting punishments and withholding benefits, between an act of suppression and a choice not to support.
Recently one of Dawkins’ speaking engagements got canceled. Many people are all of a dither for various reasons – the sponsor did not articulate a reason for the cancellation that sounds important enough to cancel (from the perspective of those criticizing the sponsor), the cancellation came only 3 weeks before the event, the sponsor ate meat last Thursday or whatever. But tossed around in all of this is the notion of Deplatforming and whether deplatforming is the same as an act of suppression (and thus a violation of the ethical principles of free speech, regardless of whether it violates a point of law or contract).
I’ve been meaning to write about the ethics of deplatforming for a while now, and you’ll get a longer essay on this soon. The short answer, however, is no: deplatforming as currently practiced/understood does not violate the principles of Free Speech.
What I encourage people to do is to trace the power back to its source. If someone or some organization/entity with power disproportionate to the speaker is redirecting power amassed for a different purpose in order to punish those who provide a platform to someone because of the content of that person’s public statements, that is a violation of the principles of free expression. If someone or some organization is openly inviting others to freely choose not to support those who provide a platform to a specific speaker (because of that speaker’s ideas or statements) and that results in the speaker losing access to public venues, that is not a violation of the principles of free speech.
If the open invitation is to join a cause to ban someone from certain venues because of something that person cannot change (such as race) rather than the content of that person’s expression, it may appear to be a free speech issue, but what is actually occurring is a violation of principles of equal opportunity. This is true even if the ban is indirectly achieved through means that may tactically resemble ethically sound actions referred to above (e.g. publicly threatening boycotts).
There may be issues of ethical interest in the recent cancellation of a Dawkins talk by KPFA, but what issues exist are not violations of the principles of free speech or expression.
*1: to the point that in some contexts people speak about the FA as if the only thing it protects is free expression, and not 5 separate rights only 2 of which closely cluster under free expression and only one more is subject to reasonable reframing to force it into the free expression box.
*2: not at all the same thing as an anti-Free Speech crowd