Stop saying ‘free speech’ only applies to the government

There’s a concept that’s currently finding its way into a lot of online discussions. I can’t tell you exactly when or where its recent surge in popularity started, but going by my lengthy experience with similar internet conversations, it probably went down like this:

A few years back, some Drunk Uncle-type presumably left a racist, sexist, or homophobic comment on a left-leaning blog, or maybe an MRA-type left a misogynistic comment on a feminist blog. I think we all know the types.

Stop saying 'free speech' only applies to the government

Presumably, he was immediately pounced upon by the site’s readership, who called out his stupidity, pointed out everything dumb about his post, and recommended that he just stop talking about everything, forever. The Drunk Uncle/MRA/incel crumbled in the face of vehement opposition, and with little else to fall back on, he responded to the pile-on with, “Whatever happened to free speech?”

Which is surely when a knight in shining armor came riding into the thread to inform the fedora-wearer that “freedom of speech” only applies to the government, and it only prevents the government from passing laws to silence you, and a privately-owned website is under no obligation to give you a platform to say whatever you want. And thus, an especially popular and satisfying go-to tactic to shut up trolls was born.

In fact, it’s been repeated so often that it’s started to become like an internet meme, showing up on message boards and social media whenever the idea of “free speech” is even vaguely alluded to. And like a meme, it’s begun to mutate. The original concept is of course 100% legally correct, but it’s beginning to be distorted by the general public in ways that could be potentially unhealthy in the long run.


This “meme” gained even more popularity through an XKCD comic, and a listicle on Cracked. I can assure you that at this very moment, that comic and that article are being deployed on social media and message boards to get trolls to shut up even harder. But while both of them are mostly technically accurate, they introduce a lot of vagaries into the conversation that could lead to problematic outcomes.

Both of them seem to treat “freedom of speech” and the First Amendment as interchangeable. Look at the first item on the Cracked list: “It Only Prevents the Government From Restricting Speech”. You might think that “it” is a reference to the First Amendment, but the words “first” and “amendment” never appear in the Cracked article, so it must be the “free speech” mentioned in the article title. But “free speech” is a right, not a law, and on its own it doesn’t prevent anything.

The right to free speech is actually a much older, broader concept than the First Amendment. Like other fundamental human rights, it’s something people innately possess (including all those non-Americans you may have heard of), and it exists independently of any government.

Which means free speech is not only about what the government can or can’t do. The right to free speech means it’s wrong for any entity, governmental or not, to try to silence you.

Unfortunately, I think a lot of people parroting this point aren’t grasping the finer details, and coming to believe that as long as it’s not a government agency censoring you, then anything goes. I’ve even seen the sentiment expressed that censorship can only be done by the government, which simply isn’t true. There are many other entities that can censor you. They may not be legally inhibiting your freedom of speech, but they are inhibiting it, and in some cases it can be just as wrong as when the government does it.

Your employer is an obvious example of a non-governmental entity that can impose limits on your free speech. With only a few exceptions (like whistle-blowing), you can be terminated for pretty much anything you say, either online or off, and it’s all perfectly legal. While there are regulations in place to prevent companies from firing people based on age, race, gender, or religion, the same doesn’t apply to people who hold a certain political belief.

Stop saying 'free speech' only applies to the government

Sadly, MRAs are not a legally protected class.

Sure, you might not be sitting in a jail cell over something you said online, but the notion of possibly losing your job, and then having to explain to future potential employers why you were fired, is enough to ensure that most of us don’t currently enjoy true freedom of speech.

And the businesses you don’t work for are more than happy to restrict your free speech when it affects their bottom line. Major corporations can and have used every legal means at their disposal to censor valid criticisms of their products and services. Some companies have even begun imposing fines on customers who dare to leave negative reviews online. No, it’s not the same as being arrested, but an unwanted $500 charge is probably enough to convince a lot of people that it’s not worth the effort of speaking out.

We’ve also seen ordinary citizens come together to censor the speech of others, particularly when mob mentality takes hold with prolonged campaigns of harassment against anyone who expresses an opinion deemed unfavorable. Social media is also starting to see more and more coordinated attempts to get people fired over the things they say online, though I suspect these efforts are more about the lulz than actually trying to censor unpopular opinions.

So clearly, it’s not just the government that can limit free speech in ways that could be considered unfair or unreasonable. Admittedly, the odds that Drunk Uncle is going to lose his job over yelling about Obummer and socialism and “the gays” on a blog are pretty slim. But when he complains about his free speech being violated, he’s actually right to some extent: when his comments are deleted or he’s banned from a discussion forum or he’s intimidated into never posting again, that’s a form of censorship. It’s just not legally prohibited censorship.

Hell, I wouldn’t even call it very troublesome censorship, especially for smaller sites. I’ve deleted plenty of obnoxious comments here in my role as site admin (though I tend to reserve deletes and bannings for people who are actually being abusive, not idiots expressing stupid opinions). But I do this with the knowledge that there are many, many other places people can go besides the Agony Booth to talk about how much the Agony Booth sucks.

On larger sites with readership in the hundreds of thousands or millions, however, weeding out unpopular voices so that only the approved groupthink opinion remains can leave a lot of readers with a lopsided understanding of the issues being discussed. Also, booting trolls with unpopular viewpoints off mainstream sites only forces them underground, where they inevitably regroup on Chan sites and start coming up with dumb ideas like #GamerGate. I’m not suggesting private websites should be forced to allow people to post anything they want, but I believe there’s some value to sites (especially the larger social media sites) allowing more leeway for offensive ideas to be expressed.

What I think happened is a lot of left-leaning internet users who normally support the tenets of free speech suddenly realized what true free speech looks like. It doesn’t mean “people bravely and courageously saying things I already agree with”, it means others are perfectly within their rights to express some pretty hateful opinions, and thanks to the internet, they now have the ability to broadcast those opinions to a huge audience of fellow assholes. So it’s not surprising that many are starting to downplay the importance of free speech, and pedantically reciting the letter of the law as if that’s the only thing that matters.

Ultimately, that’s a dangerous notion, because now scores of commenters are essentially repeating the mantra that businesses are legally allowed to control whatever we say, without ever stopping to think that, you know, maybe that’s not always a good thing.

So I think it’s time to chill on this “free speech only applies to the government” meme. By now, everybody over the age of five gets it, and you’re not saying anything particularly intelligent or profound. Maybe what needs to be repeated instead is a slightly modified version of a motto frequently misattributed to Voltaire: I disapprove of what you say, and there’s no way in hell I’m going to die to defend your right to say it, but instead of responding with “I have the right to tell you to shut the fuck up, so shut the fuck up,” I might just take the time to explain why you’re wrong.

Drunk Uncle GIF source: Hulu, MRA image source: Tumblr

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