Yeah, what *about* your free speech “rights”?

Here at FWD, it is not unusual for us to get quite a few comments in mod that question, take issue with, or outright berate our fairly rigorous comments policy and iterations thereof in varying degrees. Many of these comments are some variation of “But what about my right to express my opinion?” or “But…free speech!”

Unsurprisingly, many of the comments that try to take us to task for “prohibiting” free speech are from non-regular (and, in some cases, first-time) commenters. I try to give people — on the internet and off — the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps these folks who try to direct the conversation to their supposed right to say whatever they want “because of the First Amendment” are just unaware that many social justice-focused blogs — especially those written by people who are members of various marginalized and/or traditionally underrepresented groups — have commenting policies, usually for very specific reasons. Perhaps they think that the First Amendment entitles them to say whatever they want without also getting called on it. Perhaps they think that bigoted or hateful speech is okay, since it’s “just” on the internet and therefore cannot be taken seriously or do any “real” damage. Perhaps they think that someone needs to pay Devil’s advocate when talking to (or about) disabled feminists and other people who do not represent (or are not represented by) the majority, and they are reasonable/intellectual enough to do the job!

Here’s the thing: This website is not  run by U.S. government or employees of the U.S. government who are representing their place of work. This is a privately-owned website.  Its contributors, commenters and readers are not all from or living in the U.S. The First Amendment applies, by and large, to the United States government’s attempts to contain and/or regulate things that people say or opinions that they want to express in myriad formats. In other words, “freedom of expression” does not automatically mean that you can bust out with some bigoted crap, and then whine or call foul when the blogger or author chooses not to publish or engage with said bigoted crap, or when someone else (perhaps another commenter) calls you on this crap. Free speech is not equivalent to some sort of magical blogular free-for-all. The “free speech!!11” defense (if you want to call it that) also has the unintentional side effect of privileging US-centric notions of being able to say certain things, apparently without consequence — something that some other countries do not appear to take so lightly (see, for example, British libel laws).

From a more anecdata-ish perspective, I have noticed that many of the people, at least on the internet, who cry “free speech!!1” in defense of their supposed right to say “un-PC” things/play Devil’s advocate/et cetera are people with various kinds of privilege (white, heterosexual, abled, cis, class–to name just a few) who simply do not seem to want to give up — or, sadly even so much as critically examine — one or more of the types of unearned privilege that they have. Put simply, they just want to shut people (who oftentimes aren’t just like them for one reason or another) up using the trump card of free speech. It seems to me that the thought process might go a little something like this: Who cares if there’s a person (or people) on the other side of that computer screen? I have the right to steamroll over their lived experiences, or tell them how wrong they are ’cause “normal” people don’t feel this way, or tell them to suck it up/grow a thicker skin, or that they’re just making things up so they can be angry about stuff, or looking for stuff to get mad about, or seeing things that “aren’t there” (because if I can’t see it, it must not be there!) or use any number of derailing tactics that are not pertinent to the actual discussion at hand, or direct the discussion to my experiences and feelings as a privileged/non-marginalized person and thus re-center my own (and the majority’s) importance in a discussion that is not even about me, because it’s within my FREE SPEECH!!1 rights to do all of this and more!

Boy, that must be really fun, getting to justify making things all about you and your “rights” all of the time in spaces that are run by people who are — gasp! — different than you, and who may not have much of a safe ‘net space anyway, since the entire web is full of people who probably share at least some of your oh-so-contrarian outlook on things (not to mention some of your privilege[s]).

The free-speechers also tend to miss one important thing: If they want to spew uninformed, privilege-encrusted opinions using this excuse, and their comment gets published publicly, it is perfectly within reason for bloggers, writers and other commenters to use their free speech “rights” to respond right back.

12 Comments

  1. YES. Thank you for this. I find it so ludicrous when someone who’s just been called out for offensive language, for instance, goes on a tirade about how they can SAY WHAT THEY LIKE. Yea, you can. And so can I. So as long as you keep saying offensive crap, I’m gonna keep calling you on it because I, also, can SAY WHAT I LIKE. Dude, follow your Own logical outcome, much?

    Also, geeze, no one is stopping these people from starting their own blogs to spew whatever they like and making it so people who want to argue with them can’t comment.

    How in the world has the concept of free speech been so twisted to mean that anyone can say anything to anyone else where ever they want without any consequences whatsoever? Ugh.

    Thanks, again, to all of you who moderate these comments and keep the rest of us from having to see everything. I can’t even begin to imagine how awful it must be some days.

  2. YES!

    Fantastic post.

  3. I saw people arguing over this same thing on feministing the other day and it bugged the hell out of me. (The topic was a politician who was being fined for being a rape-apologist.) They kept going, “well, we shouldn’t police what people say bc they should be allowed to say what they want!” vs the people who said, “but what if their words are hateful and/or creating violence?”

    So glad to see this on here. I’m going to bookmark it for future “I can say what I want because I have free speech!” arguments.

  4. When my sister says something bigoted (or flat out wrong), my mom won’t let me correct her or tell her about the other person’s side, because she wants to avoid a fight.

    But sometimes she’s trotted out the free speech – “Becky has free speech!” “Well then I have the freedom to respond!”

  5. People coming from other countries hopefully appreciate that they don’t have a right to come onto someone else’s private property and spout whatever crap they like without being ejected from the premises. People in the US must be aware that they don’t have this right, but somehow some of them don’t seem to equate blogs with private property, and that really boggles my mind.

    Great post 🙂

  6. Great post!

    Since you mentioned US-centrism:
    In Germany, the corresponding article of the constitution is the right to have and express an opinion. (there are more “specialised” rights for freedom of the press, freedom of science and freedom of art). All of these have something in common: they are not absolute. Because whenever the rights of two people collide, there must be some cind of compromise. When it comes to freedom of expression and opinion, that means laws against libel (and slander). It also means that lies (about facts) are not protected, though this is only applicable when the lie can be proven, mostly in connection with those libel cases. There is also one specialised law that makes it illegal to openly declare that the Hollocaust never happened- everybody is free to present their opinions and interpretations of history, but outright denial is not allowed in a puplic media forum.

    Regarding the people who think their free speach is endangered whenever someone critizised something they say, there are two options:
    You can either think before you open your mouth, and try not to say something sexist/ ableist/ racist/ classist/ transphobic/ homophobic… and when you actually manage that, people will have nothing to accuse you of.
    Or you can say whatever you want to say, with no regards to who might be hurt. And then people have the right to react to that. They can react by using their own right to free speach to critizise what you have said. Or they can use their right to not listen to you. That’s really what a comments policy is, the enacted right to not have to listen to people.

    Freedom of speach does not mean freedom of responsibility.

  7. Oh yes!

    What really grinds my gears is what you allude to in the last part of your post; not only do these individuals defend their right to say whatever jacked-up garbage they say, but they also expect you to respect their opinion just because…it’s their opinion, I guess.

    I was just having a “discussion” with someone the other day in a lecture on intimate partner violence. This individual would. not. stop. insisting individuals in abusive relationships “just need to leave”, and that was the only appropriate course of action. Period. Things got heated, and he finally said something like, “Okay, well, I know we have some strong opinions about this, but I am glad to see that even though we disagree, we still respect each others’ opinions.” I stared at him for a second before just saying, “No. We don’t.” I was just flabbergasted that despite the fact that he could not back up his opinion with anything other than more opinion, nor offer any cogent response to actual evidence showing IPV homicide is likeliest when trying to leave one’s abuser, he expected me to consider his opinion equally legitimate as someone’s life experience, research, and/or work.

  8. I just finished reading the last post to which you linked, and I wanted to add–thanks. That was a real gem.

  9. Great post. I really hope people read it and understand more why there’s a commenting policy here.

    The unthought-out ‘free speech’ defence was particularly prevalent during the Amanda Palmer debate. Ironically enough, I noticed that the very people who were shouting the loudest about how artists were being censored/their own free speech was being denied them as commentors, were also the most intolerant of people from the disabled community having our say. Too often, ‘free speech!’ as it’s used in debate simply means ‘free speech for people who agree with me!’

  10. Ironically enough, I noticed that the very people who were shouting the loudest about how artists were being censored/their own free speech was being denied them as commentors, were also the most intolerant of people from the disabled community having our say.

    Excellent point, Ang.

    Everyone else, thanks for your comments!

  11. Here Here! Fantastic post.

    I actually wish (esp. in light of the University of Ottawa incident with Ann Coulter) that the US had more bite to their hate speech laws the way Canda and the UK do.

  12. I always say that my blog is not a democracy, it’s a dictatorship and I’m the dictator. I consider my blog my territory. One wouldn’t go into someone’s house and tell them to shut up or bully them into removing the curtains, so why would I allow someone to come into my territory online and do the same?

    Great post, I’ll save it to reference in future.
    Kath´s last blog post ..Sorting Out My Head