I probably hear more people complaining about free speech in modern society than about any other social or political issue. No-platforming, cancel culture, campus censorship and various other associated phenomena: all are condemned as restrictions on free and open discourse, both by people who share my unpopular opinions and by those who don’t.
It’s not that all this complaining is wrong. ‘Cancel culture’ – if by that we mean social media-driven attempts to have someone fired or removed from public life – is mostly bad. A society in which there is broad latitude for sincere debate is a good thing, and if that latitude is becoming very narrow that’s something to worry about.
Even so, I think the way most people talk about freedom of speech is misconceived.
The first misconception is that freedom of speech is only a matter of whether and to what extent the state can restrict or limit speech. According to this view, if some actor other than the government is censoring you or putting a limit on what you can say, your freedom of speech isn’t being affected at all. The early defenders of freedom of speech didn’t have much time for this view. As John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty recognised, non-governmental groups can censor and restrict speech just as effectively as governments. If saying certain things will make you unemployable by most companies, you are restricted from saying those things. If saying certain things will make you a pariah (or even just carry a high social cost), that’s a real restriction too. The threat of a fine or a prison sentence is not the only form of speech restriction.
The second misconception is that freedom of speech is basically an unlimited resource. It’s always possible to have more freedom of speech, at least up until some theoretical maximum where everyone can speak as freely as possible. But this isn’t so. Freedom of speech is limited by two factors: time and space.
This becomes much clearer once we stop thinking of freedom of speech as just about state restrictions. Consider a current affairs radio programme like RTÉ’s Today. To be featured on that programme massively amplifies whatever speech is uttered on it. To be on Today is to be part of Ireland’s national conversation, to at least some extent. But the programme only has so many slots, and there are an infinite number of ways they could fill them. The choice to feature some topics inevitably excludes others: there has, for instance, never once been an item on the today programme discussing whether or not Queen Elizabeth II is a lizard. And if there was such a discussion, it would push some other item off the agenda. Time and space for discussions are a limited resource, and this inevitably puts limits on at least some people’s freedom of speech.
Some people want to make a distinction between freedom of speech and being given a platform. But like the first misconception, I don’t think the distinction really amounts to much. If some opinions can be voiced on the national broadcaster and others cannot, people holding the forbidden opinions have their freedom of speech restricted. The same goes for university campuses.
The final major misconception about freedom of speech is that it is possible to approach it in a completely content-neutral way. As far as this misconception goes, whether or not what’s being said is good or not should be completely irrelevant to a supporter of free speech. The Evelyn Beatrice Hall quote (usually misattributed to Voltaire) gets thrown about a lot: “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.
Obviously, there’s something to this. If a society only allows the speech that’s considered good or correct, it would obviously not be a society that values or respects freedom of speech. But given that there are only a limited number of times and places in which discussion can be had, restricting some speech is inevitable. And making the decision about which speech to exclude must involve making some assessment of its quality. It really would be a waste of time to discuss Queen Liz the Lizard on the Today show, because the topic is absurd and would take space away from many more productive topics. It’s not only undesirable to remain completely agnostic about which views and opinions deserve a hearing: it’s impossible.
The question of how we might approach the question of freedom of speech once free of these misconceptions is a huge, multifaceted one. But one obvious conclusion suggests itself: if we are worried that a view we hold is being excluded from the discourse, we should spend more time arguing for why that view is good, and less defending an illusory idea of unlimited free speech.