Free speech, Twitter mobs, and “Something MUST be done!”
Freedom of speech has an interesting history in law – largely based on various Governments’ attempts to avoid getting lynched whilst simultaneously preventing as much sedition as they can possibly get away with. A good place to start is Blackstone’s “Commentaries on the Laws of England”:
The liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state; but this consists in laying no previous restraints upon publications, and not in freedom from censure for criminal matter when published. Every freeman has an undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public; to forbid this, is to destroy the freedom of the press; but if he publishes what is improper, mischievous or illegal, he must take the consequence of his own temerity.
.. where we see the principle of freedom of speech being that of no prior restraint – no limitations on what may be said prior to it actually being said – and afterwards, take what consequences may come. Or, to deliberately misinterpret an unrelated quote, “publish and be damned”. [What?? It’s free speech. Fuck you, pedants. Ed.]
The history in Western law can be followed from British Common Law through to the development of the US Constitution i.e. the Bill of Rights. Common Law allowed prosecution for sedition itself, irrespective of inconveniences such as truth or public interest; the Americans took exception to this and developed the First Amendment (… although not without some spectacular attempts by Congress to subvert their own laws just passed; there’s a good summary here).
What the Americans actually developed from the British starting point was not only protection in law of speech from prior restraint, beyond that of speech against the Government, but also the principle that “.. speech was not deemed worthy of protection because self-expression was considered necessary for personal self-fulfillment; it was deemed worthy of protection because it served a necessary civic function”. It’s of fundamental importance that things should be said freely simply on the virtue of them being said freely. Throughout all this, though, remains the principle from Blackstone that one shall accept the consequences of one’s actions.
So free speech means (1) the right to speak against your Government; and anyway (2) the right to say as you wish without prior restraint, combined with the responsibility to accept the consequences. So far so good. So where’s the beef?
Leaving aside for now formal sedition itself; subversion of Government; as that game, the struggle of State against the individual, is age-old; then the modern problem appears to be what, and who, defines these “consequences” of saying what you wish.
Consequences are, and always have been, defined in law. If you act illegally you’re liable for it, with a variety of consequences depending on what you did. Don’t like it? Tough shit. Either change country, change the law, or change your behaviour.
Consequences are also defined in practical terms. If you cuss out the fat slapper barmaid in a biker pub “because she smells like the packets of scampi fries in the dog’s bed” then you’re liable to get a pool cue upside the head. Is that a bad thing? Well, that’s up to you, really – it usually depends on the level of lolz gained.
Consequences are not, though, defined by anyone’s personal views. By words like “unacceptable”, “offensive”, “upsetting”. These are all words which just suggest some individual has chosen to take personal dislike to something said, and appears to think something should be done about it. Because offence.
What used to happen, pre-Interweb, was that said offendomatic person would write a tight-lipped letter to the local Parish magazine, and Mrs Miggins down the road would tut a bit, but nothing really happened and noone gave a fuck. Now, however, there appears to be a new problem – the problem of collective offence. The idea that because (e.g.) your group of Twitter followers happen to find something offensive or unacceptable etc. then some magic power is accrued granting the right to prevent the thing from being said. “It’s not acceptable; I find it grossly offensive; and everyone I know thinks the same way, so you have to stop doing it.”
Why does this matter? Well there are at least some hollowly-amusing ironies; such as “anti-Fascists” trying to coerce State force to prevent free expression, and also those who have been the victim of actual online abuse then choosing to preemptively bully anyone they see as a threat or dissent. (I know the last one is a bit of a non-sequitur, but I’ll leave the details of all that for some other conversation).
The main point, though, goes back to the original concept of free speech. Free speech isn’t about some offendotron going off on one on Twitter; there is no real power there, just amusement and the Hamster Wheel Of Rage. Governments, though, do have power; and are increasingly discomfited by exposure of their ill-use of it.
But every time you cry “Offence!”, or “That’s unacceptable and something MUST be done!”, you weaken the power of us the citizens against that which we actually should fear – the State. When you demand that your own personal views on speech be enforced, beyond the existing legal framework, you demand that those who would actually oppress you be granted greater power. And furthermore, you imply that you yourself, unaccountable as you are, should have some private arbitrary magic power over others. And you also assume some moral rightness, some absolute right to detemine what is civil and what is not – and that’s merely childish.
You have the right to be offended, but you don’t have the right to stop me being offensive, and you don’t have the right to make anyone do anything about it. Your expectations simply aren’t relevant in the world of free speech, as you have no authority no matter how much of a Twitter storm you might muster. It’s we, the individuals, ultimately against the Government and anyway simply acting under the laws of the land – and the rest of you can fuck right off. All 7Bn of you.