By Andrew Coyne
April 22, 2014
It seems not a day passes without some middle-aged white male moaning from his privileged perch - in a nationally distributed newspaper! - About how his precious freedom of speech is under threat.
Cry me a river, white boy. Freedom of speech means freedom from state restraint, not freedom from any responsibility for what comes out of your mouth. If you say racist, sexist, homophobic things, don't be surprised if someone calls you out as a racist, sexist homophobe. It might even mean you face protests, boycotts and other displays of social disapproval. Deal with it. It's just the marketplace of ideas at work.
That, at any rate, is the common reply on the left, in the wake of such controversies as Brandeis University's withdrawal of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the well-known critic of radical Islam, or the forcing out of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich for having once donated money to a campaign to ban gay marriage in California.
And there is some truth to it. People who say shocking, offensive things are often astonished to find others are shocked and offended, as if it were a violation of their rights that they were not instantly given their own talk shows.
Still, it's an oddly pinched view of freedom of speech - no government regulation, no issue - almost rightwing-libertarian in its way. You were fired for expressing your personal beliefs on a matter unconnected with your employment? Suck it up buttercup. Freedom of contract and all that. The company has customers to think of. Call me when they throw you in jail.
Really? So if someone were fired for speaking in favour of gay marriage, we'd be OK with that? If a university lecture on "rape culture" were shouted down by a bunch of frat boys, it would just be an interesting clash of perspectives? Or leave aside the hypotheticals: those federal scientists, forbidden by their employer from sharing their expertise on environmental issues? They should just find other work? Really?
It's certainly true that state coercion presents different issues than societal disapproval. The state has a greater range of penalties at its disposal, and a higher obligation to respect the liberties of all of its citizens equally. But it is a difference more of degree than of kind. The threat of jail or fines is at one end of a continuum of "consequences" that might attend speech others find offensive. But that does not mean these other penalties are not painful in their own way, or cannot have a chilling effect on speech.
For example, the ability in this wired age to mobilize large numbers of people, suddenly and often without much information or context, into tarring someone as a racist, a sexist or worse - and to pressure others to shun them for fear of facing the same poisonous charge - conveys a kind of power. Like all powers it carries an obligation not to abuse it, and like all powers it is abused.
And while most forms of state restraints on speech, short of outright censorship or prior restraint, involve some expectation of due process, no such rules apply in the vigilante justice meted out online. It is one thing to say that speech comes with consequences, but I'm not sure anyone signed up for the idea that a single ill judged tweet or private remark could cost them their job.
More to the point, the line between state and society is not so easily drawn. The idea that the state should refrain, as a rule, from regulating speech, the willingness of the public to legislate restraints on the state's ability to do so, the readiness of those in power to be so restrained, all are born of a climate of opinion that recognizes the intrinsic value of speech, even or perhaps especially where it offends.
So far as we follow the opposite impulses in our private interactions with each other, so far as we attempt not to argue with others but to intimidate them, so far as we indulge the toxic nonsense that there is a right not to be offended, we undermine that consensus, and so in turn weaken our defences - intellectual, political, legal - against the government doing likewise.
Like most principles, this is not absolute. Every editor knows the difference between free speech and editorial judgment. We are not obliged to hire a Nazi just to prove our tolerance of opposing views; neither should a university that gave an honorary degree to a pedophile expect much forbearance. Indeed, the more strictly private the setting, the more we are absolved of the obligation to tolerate the intolerable.
The distinction that matters, then - the distinction we've been missing - is perhaps not between state and society, but between the truly beyond the pale and the merely controversial or obnoxious. It's not the idea of Mozilla firing its CEO for his personal beliefs that chills - again, say he were a Nazi - it's the implicit equation of opposition to gay marriage with Nazism, or something like it: a viewpoint so utterly out of bounds that no thinking person could be forgiven for holding it even in the past. This, for a position that was Barack Obama's until two years ago.
There is a lot of this sort of thing about: People arbitrarily declaring issues "settled" about which there remains room for doubt, or at least for honest error, or trying to open issues that really are settled. How should we tell the difference? There are rules of thumb - whether it involves modelling highly complex phenomena decades into the future, like global warming, or whether, like evolution, it involves explanations of the existing order that have been tested and refined over 150 years. But mostly it is a matter of judgment.
Judgment, proportion, humility, open-mindedness, tolerance for human frailty: These are the soil in which free speech flourishes. Where we abandon them, it withers.