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More Free Speech

Most people agree that free speech is an important right. In fact, some say that there should be no limits at all on what an individual should be able to say. But when the right of free speech is taken too far even those with that extreme view tend to become a bit more moderate.

I tend towards a view supporting the maximum right to free speech. I think it is very important and the people who try to shut it down are often those who have most to lose if that right is exercised. So I am usually very suspicious of people who want to suppress discussion and criticism of any kind. For example, most large organisations – including companies and governments – keep very tight control over what the members of that organisation are allowed to say about it, even when that is likely to be far more truthful than the official sources.

On the other hand, people should also have a right to privacy and few people would say that one person has the right to free speech to the extent that they share another person’s personal information for no good reason. For example, I know a lot of people’s passwords. Do I have the right of free speech to post them all in this blog post?

So there are two competing rights there: the right to free speech and the right to privacy, and like just about every issue in the realm of fairness and ethics, it is unclear where the balance should lie.

One interesting idea recently shared by a commenter on my blog is that the right to free speech should be absolute, but if that speech leads to negative consequences then the person exercising that right should have to suffer the consequences.

So if I shared the passwords here, that would be OK, but if the owner of one of the passwords lost the contents of their bank account as a result, I would have to reimburse that amount or suffer some form of punishment. The result of this would be that I wouldn’t share passwords because of the risk. Of course, I wouldn’t do it anyway because it is against my moral code!

But what about the situation of a whistle-blower? That is the person who shares some information that would normally be considered private and not the sort of thing a “moral” person would usually distribute but might be justified in being shared to bring attention to a case of corruption affecting the public.

The consequences to the person “owning” the information are negative but to the wider public the result might be positive. So is it the greatest benefit for the greatest number? It’s easy to see how this simple idea could go badly wrong, unfortunately.

So maybe it should be simply based on law. But surely this cannot work because most activities of whistle-blowers is illegal even when it is the right thing to do.

Although this is a difficult issue, I think the current balance is towards too much suppression of ideas, so we need more free speech rather than less. While I would like to move towards the right to say anything at all, for the reasons I listed above, that doesn’t seem practical.

But here are a few areas where we could immediately improve the situation…

Any company or other organisation which operates in the public space (that is, basically all of them) should not use excuses such as “commercial sensitivity” or “executive ownership” to hide facts about their activities.

Anyone should be able to present their opinion on a subject even when it is against the prevailing ideas of political correctness, in fact it is then when contradictory views are most important.

Names and other details of legal procedures, especially those involving the rich and powerful, should not be able to be suppressed, and in jury trials the jury should be given all the facts, not just those deemed relevant by a judge.

You can probably see how these extended rights might be misused, but I have some solutions to that possible problem.

First, there is the idea mentioned above, where real negative consequences resulting from information publicised for poor reasons could be used as the basis of a case against the person revealing the information. And second, I think there should be a mechanism where contrary views and fact checking could be easily associated with any opinion expressed publicly.

For example, if anti-vaccination campaigner is interviewed on radio or TV, a real expert should be involved as well so that the inaccuracies in the first person’s argument could be revealed. Or an argument by a politician wanting to reduce freedoms to fight terrorism could be countered by pointing out what a small risk terrorism really is and how reducing freedom is the exact aim of the terrorists.

The real issue isn’t that controversial views should be suppressed, it’s that they should be negated with a better argument opposing them. And if there is no good argument which can negate their effect? Well maybe that controversial view has some merit and really deserves to be given publicity after all.

One thing’s for sure: suppressing free speech doesn’t make awkward opinions go away, it just makes them even harder to handle because the fact that they are suppressed and never effectively countered just makes them look more powerful to those who follow them.

Have a look at recent political events and this phenomenon is very obvious. Suppressing speech doesn’t suppress ideas, it just builds resentment and hostility.

  1. June 6, 2017 at 4:03 pm

    “But what about the situation of a whistle-blower?”

    This is a subset of civil disobedience. What happens if you engage in civil disobedience? You suffer the consequences, whether it be a fine, imprisonment, or death for treason. There is no legal right to free speech that shelters you from the consequences of the actions of violating the laws, even if those laws are bad. You may be morally justified, but you will still suffer the consequences. Doing the right thing, even in the face of punishment, is merely brave and righteous.

    Free speech should be theoretically absolute because it is one of the very few things that can hold back the abuses of immoral laws. That ambiguity of balance is the feature, not the defect. Balancing rights and responsibilities is never easy. Yet we should be able to say when the rights of free speech morally trump the other laws of the land. This is one reason America has ‘jury nullification’.

    In America the anti-vaccination crowd can choose not to vaccinate without fear of direct reprisal (freedom of speech). But they may have to suffer the consequences of their actions, including not being allowed to attend public schools or having access to certain medical services.

    Is this silencing speech? In a way I suppose it is. Absolute free speech really isn’t possible. In the case of vaccinations, voluntarily unvaccinated kids put other kids at risk. This is a clash of rights among different people and there is no obvious resolution. We can only fight for it.

  2. OJB
    June 7, 2017 at 12:24 am

    Yes, I think your comment just reinforces what I said: that absolute free speech is an ideal we should strive for, but we also have to be realistic that – because it conflicts with other rights – it can never happen in the real world.

    I also agree that civil disobedience is a moral obligation for people who actually care about doing “what is right”. I would just like to see it become a bit less necessary than it is now by decreasing the number of laws, regulations, and policies which make it the only way to distribute information for the benefit of society as a whole.

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