Freeze Peach and the First Amendment

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


  1. polishsalami says

    whether or not a government is performing an action

    While I’m not surprised that Social Justice people have adopted the popular Libertarian line that ‘only the government can censor’, they should at least be made aware of the reason that idea is so popular with them.

    In the fantasy world of Libertarians, the government is a ghostly presence, looking on as individuals engage in their social and economic affairs, raising a gentle hand when conflicts over property etc. arise. This, of course, is not how things are. The State is deeply embedded in our lives, but is heavily concerned with the protection of elite interests. People need to abandon the notion that government is some distant phantom, and not a pervasive cloud hanging over every aspect of existence.

    On Dawkins, it would seem that he would have the power advantage over KPFA, in terms of resources and social media reach. In retrospect, they will probably conclude that they should have gone ahead with the Dawkins thing (and had some internal squabbling), rather than have this public drama. This what I would have done, probably.

    On de-platforming, the irritating thing seems to be inviting someone to speak, and then backing down when a fuss is created. Why was X invited in the first place? I have no problem with an organization simply not inviting Dawkins (or Bindel, or Greer, or whoever) to speak, but can everyone stop the backtracking? DO SOME RESEARCH BEFORE YOU BOOK SOMEONE!

  2. says

    sez polishsalami @1: “While I’m not surprised that Social Justice people have adopted the popular Libertarian line that ‘only the government can censor’…”
    Well, even Libertarians can get things right on occasion, so I won’t denigrate a perfectly good concept merely on the grounds that (some?) Libertarians happen to agree with it. I am, however, curious to know: If it’s not true that “only the government can censor”, it must therefore be true that some actions taken by non-government entities can, indeed, constitute ‘censorship’. So… which actions would those be?

    Not gonna hold my breath waiting for polishsalami to clarify their position…

  3. khms says

    I think that one’s fairly easy to answer:

    If some entity takes essentially the same actions that a government would take to censor someone, it would seem reasonable to describe this with the same vocabulary.

    So: a corporate entity might chose to censor what (some or all of) their employees say, and retaliate against them in various ways when they don’t comply.

    Note that this is very different from deplatforming, where the only question is what media get used.

  4. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    It’s also different than deplatforming as practiced in the fact that deplatforming is openly creating a connection between individuals for the precise purpose of using the power of their massed opinion to deny one platform or another to a particular speaker.

    An employer gathers power for reasons entirely unconnected with controlling what people say and/or where they can say it. They are given power through people spending money on products or services, but the money is not given with the expectation that the profits serve the purpose of denying any specific platform to any specific purpose. It is only post facto that a company uses that power under other pretenses to deny platforms to employees or to deny all public platforms to employees on the basis of what the employee wishes to say.

    It is the open advertisement of a groups intention to deplatform that makes the use of that power to deplatform so fundamentally different from censorship conducted by powerful entities who utilize power gained without any acknowledgement that someday they might use this power to stop public sharing (or reduce opportunities for sharing) certain content.

  5. doublereed says

    Here it seems more similar to the Heckler’s Veto, which also generally does not involve the government but has free speech implications. This was done after an outrage. How much do we listen to outraged voices? How large does the vocal minority have to be? How much control do we give the Heckler? Organizations may become so fearful of outrage and hecklers that they don’t take marginalized voices, or don’t deal with speakers at all. The problem is due to the precedent that it sets, rather than the individual action.

    Of course, the organization may just agree with the hecklers and change their position. It’s not always out of fear (although it commonly is). It may just be the organization going “hey these guys have a good point.”

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