October 22, 2012 - Start of Free Speech Week

You could start thinking about freedom of speech by checking out the official Free Speech Week website. There you can find out about an essay contest (which ends today!), watch some videos, and find out what various organizations have done to celebrate freedom of speech.

The creators of the day encourage us all—kids and teens and adults—to write in private journals or public blogs, to comment on Facebook or on others' blog posts or websites, to write articles or letters for school or city newspapers—in order to to exercise our free speech rights and express our ideas.

I just read an interesting blog post from PZ Myers. He wrote that “free speech is not freedom from responsibility,” and he explored some of the nuances of the free speech discussion. Basically, he points out that this freedom, like any other freedom, is not absolute.

I have always known that free speech has some limits. For example, it has been ruled that free speech doesn't include speech that causes others clear and present danger, such as screaming “Fire!” in a movie theater when there is no fire. You probably know that libel and slander and defamation laws also limit free speech: you cannot write or broadcast a false claim that gives someone else a negative image. There is even some limitation of public disclosure of private facts—even if the facts are true, courts have ruled, that is no defense against invasion of privacy.

So there are a lot of reasonable limitations on freedom of speech. 

PZ Myers points out that some people complain that someone's freedom of speech has been violated if they are not allowed to comment on a certain website, blog with a certain blog group, or talk on a certain broadcast show. But, he says, that is clearly wrong. The person can still speak freely elsewhere. There is no reason that a website moderator, say, or network executive HAS TO provide a soapbox and megaphone for every single person in the world to say whatever he or she wants, whenever she or he wants.

People who disagree with you and me—even people who have awful views and ideas—have the right to speak and write about their ideas. But they don't have the automatic right to speak at, say, the science conference I went to a few months ago, or the church down the road, or a soldier's funeral. I have a right—–and even a responsibility!—to eliminate a comment on my Facebook page or on this blog if I consider it highly inappropriate or hate speech.

Myers points out that when we discuss freedom of speech, we should acknowledge the problem of privilege. As always in a democracy, where the rights of the minority must be safeguarded against the whims of the majority, we must consider the fact that not everyone has equal access to public speech. It seems as if the internet offers a democratic solution to the problem of the wealthy and powerful owning the printing presses and broadcast stations. However, even on the internet, we have to watch out that the loudest and most aggressive voices don't drown out everyone else. One possible problem with communication on the internet is its opportunities for anonymity; I have seen, over the years, that people writing anonymous posts or comments often feel free to speak horribly hateful words that they would never, ever say to someone in the flesh, in real life.

Basically, freedom of speech is important, and worth defending. But this freedom must be discussed with nuance rather than with absolutes. It is a freedom that must be balanced against other freedoms. It is a freedom that carries responsibilities to ourselves and others.

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