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.

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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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  • TheRedWorm

    “, the real problem is how much delight some take in insisting that only the government can limit free speech.” Huh, I’ve always heard it the opposite way, in that only the gov’t can guarantee free speech. All private institutions can limit the speech of people/trolls they find offensive, and there is pretty much nothing said people/trolls can do about it.

    • TheRedWorm

      So I’m not the only one…

  • Jonathan Campbell
  • Guest

    Paragraph four “and it only prevents the government from passing laws to silence you….”
    Paragraph seven “In particular, the notion that only the government can put limits on your free speech is provably false.”

    You first state (correctly) that the argument is that only the government CANNOT put limits on your free speech.

    You then suddenly reverse what you wrote and say that people are arguing the opposite: that ONLY the government can censor. From that point on, the entire piece falls apart, as you are criticizing the opposite of what is actually being done, and therefore, are in agreement with the actual thing that people are doing.

    This is not a “meme” we’re dealing with here: It’s a statement of truth. The government CANNOT pass laws that abridge your free speech, and those people like “Drunk Uncle” incorrectly think that they can say anything they want in any situation with no repercussions.

    Both the comic and the Cracked article point out that “free speech” as it is defined in the Constitution (and what Drunk Uncle incorrectly refers to to defend himself) is specific to not allowing the government to use the rule of law to restrict your speech. You actually seem to support that definition…and so do the people you’re criticizing. Somewhere (between the fourth and sixth paragraph) you seemed to either get confused by what people were actually saying, or you turned it into a strawman argument for….I don’t know why or what purpose.

    • Cameron Vale

      Free speech can be harmed by things other than government actions. That’s what he’s saying (in paragraph six).

    • tcorp

      First of all, as a legal matter, the “government” (assuming we’re referring to both federal and state levels) can restrict speech. BUT that ability to regulate speech is limited to specific exceptions to the broad right to free speech.

      Second of all, as a legal matter, the government (the federal government with its limited powers, and the state with its general welfare powers) could potentially pass legislation prohibiting certain individuals, entities, etc. from censoring free speech, subject to other constitutional limitations. Whistleblower laws (like Winston said) are a good example.

      So to say, categorically, that the government cannot restrict free speech or that the right to free speech applies only to the government is incorrect.

    • Pandabearnanke

      I think you are confused to what he meant and to be fair Mr. O’Boogie could’ve been more clear.

      “that ONLY the government can censor.”

      I believe he meant “Only the government can censor” as in “censor” is a bad thing like “violating your rights”. So he meant it like “Only the government can violate your rights”.

      So for example lets say someone posted a controversial opinion, either people mobbed him with hate and scorn or his comment was downvoted to oblivion, or his comment was removed by a moderator he would say “No fair! You guys are censoring me!”

      And the crowd would say “Nope, only the government can censor you”.

      So he’s not literally saying the government CAN censor or prohibit free speech literally, he’s saying that’s the excuse as in censorship is bad, anything bad should face a backlash. If the government censors they deserve backlash, if regular people do it its not censorship because only its only bad when the government restricts your freedom of speech. Does that make sense?

      Again I think the writer could’ve been more clear. I think I understand him because I agree with his general sentiment.

  • Steve Potter

    Free speech DOES only apply to the government. The government is the only entity not allowed to censor/prohibit the speech of its citizens. Websites and businesses are well within their rights to do so.

    • TheScottCSmith

      Not only that, but most online services have terms and conditions you agree to when you create an account. If you don’t want Facebook “censoring” what you post, either don’t post something that is in violation of Facebook’s terms and conditions, or don’t use Facebook.

      • Pandabearnanke

        And you proabably think that because like most of the lemmings here you only think of groups you hate like MRAs or Gamergaters.

        If Facebook was around in the 60’s and white supremacist groups were pressuring Facebook to suspend Martin Luther King’s Facebook page because he was promoting subversive ideas and communism you would be fine with that? Because MLK signed the terms and conditions?

        Free speech is not just legal thing, its a MORAL issue. To be preserve free speech we need to support it regardless of how society changes and who we see as the good guys and bad guys. The current majority in our time, like every other majority in the past seem to think they have mastered the knowledge of who are good and who are bad. So they think they don’t need to fairly apply freedom of speech to everyone because they’re wise enough to decide who does and who doesn’t deserve freedom of speech.

        Silly them.

        • Greenhornet

          Oh how quaint, a RACE CARD. May I see it?
          RIP! RIP! RIP!

    • Pandabearnanke

      No, its not “Free Speech” that only applies. Its the 1st Amendment, the 1st Amendment only applies to the government. Freedom of Speech is a more broader right that trandscends mere governmental or legal concerns.

      “Websites and businesses are well within their rights to do so”

      So if someone tweets their support of gay marriage then a company like Microsoft can fire them? Obviously they wouldn’t in the current climate but I’m going to assume you support gay marriage. You wouldn’t like it when its speech you like being blocked right?

      That’s the problem, people are so immature they only like free speech when its something they like, they don’t want others to practice it when its something that offends them so they create exceptions like “hate speech”. That would be fine except there are too many examples in history where people abused terms like “hate speech” to get rid of anything they disliked. Just like “commie”.

    • Nathan Clark

      By that logic only the government can be racist.

    • janus999

      No that is not correct. The author already told you why, what did you do – skip to the comment section without even reading? Furthermore the declaration says our rights are “unalienable” which means they cannot be taken away. One of the rights listed is Liberty – Freedom of Speech is a LIBERTY, and thus cannot be taken away. It isn’t the RIGHT of private entities to take away your freedom of speech, it is something they get away with because people allow it.

    • Evil Bastard

      Steve Potter – as a private citizen, would I be allowed to form a citizen’s group, and use that group to block, shout down, pull fire alarms, use bullhorns and 140 decibel air horns, or otherwise silence my political opponent’s speech, without breaking any other laws? Is that within my rights to do? Am I allowed to, by virtue of a majority of numbers, completely silence my political opponent’s ability to speak, hold meetings, or assemble? That’s what Hitler’s Brownshirts did, you know.

  • E.Buzz Miller

    Free speech is grossly misinterpreted. A-holes who use it to cover saying whatever they want as a shield apparently missed the part where it also includes the right to disagree and challenge what they said.

    • Pandabearnanke

      Yes of course people can challenge it. You can’t go into a Church and start yelling “Jesus is fake” over and over without reprecussion, nobody argues that.

      But if someone tweeted “I support Gamergate” should they be subjected to a organized campaign to get him fired from his/her job? If a organized mob did that that’s not against the FIRST AMENDMENT because the organized mob isn’t the government but its against the older principles of free speech. Obviously there’s a grey area but getting someone fired for a simple opinion is crossing the line.

      Its like the concept of “thou shalt not kill”. We have a law for that but even without a law we still have societal taboo against killing. That’s what free speech is. Its a unofficial rule.

  • Gallen_Dugall

    responsibility is the counterpart to any freedom

    • Greenhornet

      Or, as one of my grade school teachers said (Back in the ’60’s when we KNEW these things):
      “Your rights end when they infringe on mine”.

  • Michael Martin

    Yeah, I think you totally missed the actual point of the “meme” here. In fact, you seem to be reading it exactly backwards. The argument isn’t “only the government can restrict free speech” it’s “the only time restricting free speech is CENSORSHIP is when the government does it.” The problem isn’t Drunk Uncles/MRAs/GamerGaters yelling “free speech!” it’s specifically that they call people banning them from private platforms/forums censorship. That’s the whole point of the XKCD cartoon, for example. And we need to keep making this point, because idiots keep shouting censorship, as if Facebook and Twitter are now big/important enough that getting your account suspended is exactly the same as being jailed.

    • Jonathan Campbell

      “the only time restricting free speech is CENSORSHIP is when the government does it.”

      “The problem isn’t Drunk Uncles/MRAs/GamerGaters yelling “free speech!” it’s specifically that they call people banning them from private platforms/forums censorship”

      Well, yes and no.

      In the strictly legal sense you may make that case, but in the dictionary sense it has a much broader meaning and yes, censorship does refer to pretty much any attempt by any group or individual attempting to prevent or punish you for what you say or write or play etc.

      Much like murder or insanity; legally, murder is “unlawful killing” (ie. excluding the death penalty, military actin, self-defence etc.) and insanity is about how responsible you are for your actions due to mental illness. The more common uses of the word are different- murder is deliberately killing someone, and insanity is a synonym for “crazy” or other similar vaguely defined words.

      So, both right, both wrong. They are in the wrong if they think they can take legal action of any kind or that this violates ones constitutional rights or whatever (and this gets complicated on the Internet when you consider that this debate sounds like an American thing particularly); you are wrong if you think that it isn’t censorship in any definition of the word or that it isn’t censoring in any way. It depends on whether they are being serious or just hyperbolic.

      It seems like a culture issue too, like “Freedom of Speech” is so valued that using “Censorship” in any non-government sense is taboo (which is of course, exactly why it is used so much- its a serious accusation, so its strong language, and strong language is something that is going to be used), and how true that is depends on where you live and what country you are from.

      • Mike

        I’ve long felt there are three basic forms of censorship, even if the first amendment only protects you the first (in the United States anyway)

        1) Legal censorship: laws attempting to ban obscenity or suppress indecency for example as different definitions of obscenity and indecency go through the courts

        2) Oversight censorship: Like the motion picture rating administration that require content receive a rating for restricting viewership by age and sometimes highly subject in terms of what’s supposedly age appropriate. While not required for movie distribution, not having a rating of any kind severely limits a movies availability as many theater refuse to show them so it’s censorship by default. The rare times you can feel legal group to challenge this action is through contract dispute as was the case with The Smothers Brothers TV series being abruptly cancelled by the network.

        3) Tacit censorship: pressure groups of various interests (some broader than other) and of various political strips trying to ban certain works from available to the general public through campaigns of intimidation. Most of these tactics are perfectly legal (letter writing campaigns, pickets, boycotts etc.) Others can be illegal such as vandalism, bomb threats, death threats, and assaults on performers and presenters. Either way the intent is what makes it censorship. Freedom of speech means one has the right to demonstrate and assemble in protest of course, but I believe a certain line is crossed when one moves from just discouraging people not to spend money on a movie and trying to drive that movie out of theaters.

        When it comes to online forums one needs to find balance between allow an even flow of ideas and creating a safe and workable social environment. I don’t someone is being denied any free speech rights is they are removed for being abusive or harassing. That’s only the case if there “ideas” only are what gets them banned.

        No should assume there right to free speech exists in a vacuum. Your right to throw snowballs ends when my head gets in the way. If someone what’s to make a statement that could be deemed offensive, provocative, controversial, or challenging they should at least be able to back it up with some substance. And if they just say “I’m entitled to my opinion” they clearly don’t care about any else’s and aren’t worth paying attention to.

    • Pandabearnanke

      Yes sometimes people invoke their Constitutional Right (the 1st Amendment) when they’re being censored by a non-government entity like a internet mob.

      And no, obviously its not as important as being jailed by the government. But they still have a innate right to free speech. Obviously if they say something like “blacks are stupid” they can expect a backlash of angry people. But if someone writes “blacks are stupid” on their blog or Twitter do you think a mob of people should actively search for stuff like that and report them to Blogger or Twitter and get their accounts suspended?

      Its not the same as being jailed that doesn’t make it any less wrong. Twitter and Facebook ARE important enough that people should had a certain degree of protection. Culturally not legally.

      Its one thing if I directly tweet “blacks are stupid” to a black person on Twitter, that could be considered abuse. But if I tweet “blacks are stupid” on say my Twitter account with 3 followers you think someone should be able to report me and get my account suspended? That’s a slippery slope.

    • Graeme Cree

      No, it’s censorship even when you do it. It’s just not illegal.

  • Social Crime Radio

    Sigh, another site falls to the sensationalist click bait. Soooo no more movies and tv here? This article does not belong here.

    • MichaelANovelli

      You realize your notion can be disproven by simply turning your head to the right, slightly, yes?

      • tcorp

        But I hate change, even if it’s slight and I can easily compensate for it.

      • Social Crime Radio

        True, ty! :P

  • This may be slightly off the subject but are “filter bubbles” which are placed on you without your knowledge or consent count as a type of censorship?

  • Devil Child

    This article’s pretty old and likely won’t receive any more comments, but I need to say this anyway.

    It’s amazing how many retards are defending non-governmental censorship below. It feels like half the country’s affected with this poisonous thought.

    Newsflash motherfuckers. Every single one of you’s written a post or spoken a word at some point that would’ve got your ass in the grave at some point in history, or even right now. Fuck the First Amendment. Free speech is greater than any piece of paper or law. Along with the scientific method, it’s the only genuine route to progress for the ignorant. It’s one thing to fight against trolls, but that’s not what most sites are doing. They’re squashing debate outright, and it’s morally offensive that so many are okay with it.

    • Mark Linott

      “Waaah, I mouthed off and got my ass banned from somewhere, and I’m butthurt about it. Why do my rights end when they infringe upon the rights of others? Why can’t I be a douchebag and get away with it? Waaaaaah.”

      • Pandabearnanke

        Like most people these days Mark resorts to childish taunts because he’s too lazy to come up with a decent rebuttal. Hey Mark too bad you couldn’t have posted this on Twitter, I’m sure the rest of your hivemind would’ve given you about 20 retweets.

      • scantron

        Mark Linott so people havent been killed by what they have written historically by authoritarian regimes? (like what devils child was alluding to albeit with more colorful language than i would choose),your just making a labeling and transference of criticism joke that people who care about free speech in public and private discourse are simply just racists & idiotic jerks or internet trolls,

        • Evil Bastard

          Hitler’s brownshirts (Sturmabteilung) did the same thing, before they were legal. They were tasked with disrupting the speech of opposing parties, so that they could not hold meetings or speak publicly. At the time, they were only private citizens. The only group that was free from this harassment was Hitler’s party. The Sturmabteilung later went on to become the famous SS.

          • scantron

            thats not entirely accurate according to public record and history books on the topic,the police forces of the Wiemar republic were frequently called to break up brawls between the national socialists and communist parties during either sides speaking events,also the SA was a completely different organization than the SS,the SS superseded the SA after the night of the long knives incident as the national socialist parties personal armed force after which the SA was downsized

        • Antigone

          Lol…seriously? You’re comparing a website not putting up with people who “infringe upon the rights of others” with something like a Nazi regime? Bitch please.

          • scantron

            i was replying to the notion that the only people who care about this ie free speech in the private sector are “Racists and nazis/internet trolls” because we are talking about words here,something that for sake of argument people conflate with action,historically speaking authoritarian regimes have silenced undesirables in the past with the support of private entities(media or commercial groups) so to have a notion that the private sector can do no wrong is particularity short sighted ,your comment is just a knee jerk reaction without proper understanding of historical context,also saying “bitch please” proves your a mentally stunted fool

  • Nathan Clark

    Free speech is a concept. First amendment is a law.

    Arguing that only the government can fuck with free speech is like arguing only the government can be racist. You might be able to find reasonable justifications to censor or ban someone, but pretending you’re not censoring people is trying to have your cake and eating it.

  • thebigone0305

    I find it interesting that in this discussion the actual case law that establishes that even private entities can be held accountable to the 1st Amendment in certain cases is generally ignored. Marsh v. Alabama ( showed, that the “we aren’t the government, so the rules don’t apply to us” might work in most cases, but no in all. In this specific case it was about free speech on a company town’s side walk, but the modern social networks could very much be held to the same standard. AOL wasn’t back in 1996, but seeing the reach that companies like Google or especially Facebook have with their platforms today, I don’t think it would be unreasonable to argue that they are much closer to being a corporate town than a regular old private property. Also the AOL case was about commercial spam, not private citizens exercising their speech.

  • Kiki Fogg

    What do we do, though, if taking the time to explain why they’re wrong doesn’t work? If their confirmation bias is so powerful that they reject all evidence? If they see this discussion as an attack & respond by bringing legions of sockpuppets to flood the site with nothing but their own midguided views?

  • Graeme Cree

    “You suck” isn’t a viewpoint at all, it’s a feeling. “You suck, and this is why…” is a viewpoint.

    From a legal point of view, it’s true that the website owner who censors speech on his site isn’t committing a crime. The question to ask is not whether or not he is censoring (he is), but whether or not he is being intolerant. (These days, some of the most intolerant people around pride themselves on their tolerance (!), simply because they don’t get called on their intolerance very often).

    Obviously, someone like Drunk Uncle Joe is not going to call anyone on their intolerance. He’s too busy trying to be even worse. But is it intolerant to delete any views that don’t please you? Obviously it is. Is it intolerant to delete Uncle Joe’s drunken rant? Debatable, but I think I could at least make a case that it isn’t. (He isn’t expressing any actual viewpoint, only feelings, and is suppressing other views I may want to hear by bullying people away).

    The website owner can easily dismiss the charge that he’s doing anything illegal (he’s not), but he can’t brush away the label of “Intolerance” as easily as that.