What is freedom of speech?
Freedom of speech is the freedom to profess any idea without fear of being prosecuted or unduly punished for it. It is a direct protection that all people have from government and those in power. This is one of the most essential elements of a free and democratic society. In order for the public discourse to produce the best policies, all ideas must be allowed to be heard.
Not only does freedom of speech include the freedom for individuals to speak their minds, but also it includes the right for others to hear them. You have a right to consume any information you wish (with very few exceptions) so that you can make the most informed decisions relevant to your life. No person or group should be able to decide for you.
They say that ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant’. This is precisely why bad ideas must be heard: so that we know why they are bad.
Despite this freedom being one of the most important, it is not an absolute right. We have limitations to rights in order to operate in society. There are several categories of speech that are not included in free speech:
- a direct incitement of violence
- defamation (libel and slander)
- a solicitation to commit a crime
- child pornography
- true threats
- manifestation of violence as a means of conveying a message
These categories are excluded from freedom of speech because they either cause direct, intentional harm to individuals, unjustly damage an individual’s reputation, interfere with the natural course of justice, or incite violence or illegal activity by others. Our legal system has developed a thorough way to define these categories fairly. It is through a series of established tests that the criteria for each of these are met.
These categories that are not free speech are, for the most part, ex post (meaning after the fact). This means that these acts of speech have been made in the past and are subject to punishment under the law because they were prohibited by law.
Censorship of both a future speaker is ex ante (meaning before the fact). To prohibit this speech would rely on harm done in the hypothetical. If we allow freedom of speech exceptions to deal with hypothetical harm, people in power can justify serious limitations to free speech on what can be said is sheer potentiality of harm.
“There ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.” – John Stewart Mill, On Liberty, Chapter II: Of Liberty of Thought and Discussion
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” – George Orwell
“Goebbels was in favour of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favour of free speech, then you’re in favour of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favour of free speech.” – Noam Chomsky
"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" – Evelyn Beatrice Hall in The Friends of Voltaire
What is ‘hate speech’?
Hate speech is a purported new addition to the categories of speech not protected under the umbrella of freedom of speech. It includes any speech that demeans or debases a person or group of people based on gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability, or other characteristics.
Hate speech, however, is inconsistent with the underlying principle of freedom of expression. It grossly narrows the scope of allowable speech within a democratic society due to the ambiguous nature of being ‘demeaned’ or ‘debased’ by an opinion.
In other such categories limiting freedom of expression, we see that there are objective elements of harm. In the case of hate speech, the determining factor becomes wholly subjective. Everyone has different standards for what is appropriate to say. Some people have thicker skin than others. Limiting free speech by what one subjectively sees as being harmful would change with every victim’s account of what ‘harm’ is.
If this were the case, policy arguments that may insult or offend a specific group could not be heard simply on the basis of subjective whim. It is not the popular opinions that we must protect, it is unpopular ones.
If we take John Stewart Mill’s famous quote on the necessity of allowing unpopular speech to be hear, the importance of this protection becomes all too clear.
Inevitably, who defines the bounds of hate speech are those in power. One of the major purposes of this freedom is to hold those in power to account. By allowing those in power to define the its boundaries, the purpose of free speech is lost.
Can you stand for freedom of speech but not hate speech?
If you stand for freedom of speech, you will have to stand for speech that you find morally reprehensible. The freedom of some people’s speech does not end because it is hateful. This does not mean that you have to agree with hateful views, nor does it mean that you have to let hateful speech go unchallenged. If you encounter speech that you think is hateful, explain why. Counter it with rational arguments.
Does freedom of speech extend to a right for a platform?
No. Having the freedom to say something does not mean that you have a right to have any platform you want.
Private platforms owned by individuals or groups are allowed to deny a platform to anyone they choose by right of the platform being their private property.
Public platforms are a different matter. Because individuals have the right to free speech in the public arena as members of the public, it is unlawful to deny them access to a public platform. Similarly, we all pay for public property. Those in power or the majority should not be able to remove from the minority the liberty to use public facilities.
Should even Nazis have free speech?
Any Nazis living in New Zealand would be at least 91 years old as Nazis are people who were a member of the National Socialist German Workers' Party between 1920 and 1945.
Anyone else is not a Nazi. But it is not uncommon for some people to label someone whose speech they dislike as a Nazi, as a way to avoid debating what they actually say. There is even an adage known as Godwin’s Law which says “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches.” Hardly any Nazis would still be capable of speaking, but if they could, yes they too have freedom of speech.
How about neo-Nazis?
Yes there are some neo-Nazis around. They often openly identify as neo-Nazis and common features are holocaust denial, use of Nazi symbols and admiration of Adolf Hitler.
Neo-Nazis are terrible and often very stupid people. But trying to censor what they say actually helps them. The American Civil Liberties Union says:
“Censoring so-called hate speech also runs counter to the long-term interests of the most frequent victims of hate: racial, ethnic, religious and sexual minorities. We should not give the government the power to decide which opinions are hateful, for history has taught us that government is more apt to use this power to prosecute minorities than to protect them. As one federal judge has put it, tolerating hateful speech is "the best protection we have against any Nazi-type regime in this country."
Why should you defend a fascist or neo-Nazi’s right to speak?
Because fascists and neo-Nazis are wrong, and the only way for us to convince them that they are wrong is to show, through rational debate, the flaws in their thinking. Otherwise, we will have groups of angry, resentful, hateful people that cannot change for the better. Bad ideas grow in the dark. Freedom of speech allows us to shine the light on terrible ideas.
We also need to point out fascist ideology in New Zealand by using public discourse. We cannot objectively identify isolated factors if we cannot discuss the inherent problems of fascism at length.
Why should public platforms operate as common carriers?
If the platform is owned by a government body, the freedom of speech must be upheld. This is because rights are freedoms that protect private individuals from government.
If the platform is owned by a private body, the owner is able to express his freedom of speech and not provide a platform to a speaker.
Does this mean I can threaten a private speaker to not provide a platform?
No. You cannot threaten a private venue owner or any venue goer for providing a platform for a speaker. What you can do is not support the business of that private venue owner.
Vote with your dollar.
Should I protest speech I disagree with?
Of course. Protest itself is a valuable form of speech.
But there is a difference between protest and drowning out. If people have gone to a meeting to hear the invited speaker speak, and you act to prevent them from hearing views they wish to hear, that is a form of censorship.
A heckle, a boo, a retort is not the same as trying to drown a speaker out. The former is expressing your view while the latter is preventing others from hearing speech they wish to hear.
Do I have to like what someone is saying if I support freedom of expression?
No! You do not need to like what someone is saying and still support their freedom to say it. There are many ways to demonstrate your disapproval of speech you do not like without taking away a person’s right to speak.
These may include:
- Do not listen.
- Write an opinion.
- Do not contribute to their business.
What do you do if you encounter speech that you do not like?
- Consider walking away.
- Consider countering their arguments with better arguments of your own.
- Peacefully explain why they are wrong.
- Remember that there are laws protecting you from physical harm.
- Be proud that you are mature enough to listen to someone who you think is wrong and still support their right to be wrong.
If you agree with the Free Speech Coalition that this most important right must remain sacrosanct, consider joining us in keeping New Zealand a free and democratic society.