Speech and Liberty

Twitter produced an intriguing argument last night as Glenn Greenwald and Jacob Williamson exchanged handbags over the issue of freedom of speech. Williamson proceeds to set out a position of sorts here (though note it’s rather more targeted at Greenwald) and in converse Greenwald sets out some form of position here (though his position is more implied than set out – a skim through his Twitter feed in the last few days makes it clear that an easier exposition of his view on ‘free speech’ is probably something like, ‘anyone can say anything they want, to anyone they want, in any manner they desire, and has the absolute and unalienable right to do so unhindered by anyone’.)

Something that caught my eye is Greenwald’s claim that anyone who doesn’t support his position doesn’t actually believe in free speech. That’s quite a drastic claim, and I object to it, because I’d like to believe I’m a firm believer in free speech despite not sharing his hardline position.

Freedom to do something doesn’t necessarily have to mean absolute freedom to do that thing, whatever, full stop. It means freedom to do it within reason, within morally acceptable boundaries, and within the spirit of the law. Crucially, it means freedom to do it with respect to other people’s freedom to their human rights. My freedom of movement doesn’t give me the freedom to move anywhere I want – to roam into the homes of strangers on a walk through the countryside, or to take a quick stroll through GCHQ if I’m bored.

Pull out Mill and his harm principle. Mill is well known as an ardent defender of freedom of speech, especially with respect to the value of heterodox positions. Less commonly regarded, I find, is Mill’s commentary on the importance of balancing off people’s right to speak freely against the right of others to be unharmed. As he was aware, the huge difficulty here is adjudicating on what constitutes ‘harm’.

As I’m sure Greenwald would delight in quickly pointing out, people might argue that a plethora of widely expressed opinions cause ‘harm’. It is on that basis that I find this subject so difficult – what do I say to the man who tells me that my socialist economic views cause them harm?

But there’s more to it than that, and it simplifies this debate to rule out restrictions on the basis that some nut could insist that any form of speech causes them harm and should be restricted. We are capable of differentiating between harm which the state needs to act against and that which it doesn’t – we do this all the time in the judicial system. Where the lines are is indeed a difficult and complex position, but intuition suggests that there is a line there somewhere, and it falls far before the likes of antisemitic protest at a holocaust memorial.

I think it’s also worth considering why we think free speech is so valuable. For me, it’s because I believe that it’s important, for various reasons, that we need to allow everyone’s perspective on issues to be aired in public and have the potential to gather support. I don’t think it’s got much to do with some intrinsic value to the individual of being able to say whatever we want in public. This is an important distinction, because it means that we can satisfy people’s right to free expression by giving them some reasonable access to public discourse, but doesn’t necessitate giving them all and any access that they might desire – for example aggressive public demonstrations by racist groups.

Free speech is a balancing act, much like any right. By and large, I’m with Mill in believing that very, very few acts ever fall on the wrong side of that balance – it is really hard to cause so much harm with a speech act that it can be deemed illegally violent – but I’m not with Greenwald in so far as I believe it is possible.

Edit: With a hat-tip to Williamson (above) for bringing this to my attention, I now realise I was writing very similar stuff back earlier this year with regard to Boris Johnson banning those homophobic bus adverts in London. The consistency of the basic position I’ve put out in both posts accurately reflects what’s becoming quite a firm conviction for me – that there are forms of speech which the government absolutely is justified in intervening in, and this isn’t a threat to what we can still reasonably call free speech. I am hardly any closer, however, to a definitive answer on how we decide where to draw the line. Some would draw that line much further into the realms of state control than most of us are probably comfortable with, and the very compelling arguments they might advance throw up some really interesting questions. More to come.


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About Jon Robinson

Lefty ex-politics student turned med student, interested in current affairs, economics, gender politics and health issues. Occasionally pretends to understand philosophy. @jon__robinson

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  1. Hate speech, continued. | liberal reflections - July 28, 2012

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