15 December 2016

Free speech (n.)

Since so many people seem to be confused on this point:

free speech is the right to express ideas without coercion

We must protect freedom of speech both because it is an aspect of individuals’ right to liberty and dignity and because it is good for society to have a rich exchange of ideas.

It is important that we understand free speech broadly and protect it vigorously. But common misunderstandings inspire me to outline what free speech is not:

  • Free speech is not just law, it is a principle, a social norm.
  • Free speech is not just protection from government censorship, it is protection from coercion of all kinds. If there are things you cannot say because it might cost you professional opportunities in work unrelated to what you said, or it might lead to harassment or even violence, or it might prevent you from finding housing or medical care or other essential services, then that is no less coercive than a law. (It is important to distinguish this from professiional consequences for saying things related to one’s work.) The rest of that famous XKCD cartoon is correct, but that first panel is dangerously wrong: where it says “free speech” it describes the First Amendment, not the principle of free speech.
  • Free speech is not only a protection for nice speech, it is and must be a protection for icky speech too. Free speech is a right to say things that discomfort others.
  • Free speech is not a right to speak in every space. It is a right to speak in the public sphere. One may also be invited into private spaces, and what one says there is subject to the same free speech principles, but that does not mean one has a right to barge into any space you want and demand to speak. Private spaces may set their own rules for participation.
  • Free speech is not a right to freedom from criticism. The whole point is that one’s critics are free to speak, too.
  • Free speech is not a right to say anything, it is a right to express ideas. It is not a license for lies, deceit, and fraud. It is not a license to conspire to commit crimes. It is not a license for slander, harassment, and threats. There is no legitimate personal right to those actions, they do not contribute to the public sphere of ideas, and there is a significant public interest in curtailing them. Disingenuously defending these on “free speech” grounds is an attack on free speech.

This is not hard to understand. But things being what they are, I expect that I will have to expand and clarify this list over time.

From a very long word about free speech protections in the workplace, and the implications for people with very bad politics.

I am vexed that so many social justice advocates do not just legitimize but actively court the exercise of this unaccountable power over people, shaming employers of bigots and other villains. I respect their frustration at having so few means to deter antagonists against social justice, but history teaches us who suffers most when employers fire employees because of their political views … or other things they have said … or fear public pressures over their employees. This knife cuts reactionary white male professionals the least.

My rule is more specifically don’t fire people for ideas they share outside the workplace, if the ideas are irrelevant to their job.

In this I do not want to legitimize the most visible critics of “Cancel Culture”, who are profoundly wrong. I am pushing back against a part of what we talk about when we talk about Cancel Culture, but not their part.

I call shenanigans on culture industry professionals decrying other culture industry people losing jobs — or most often, just having to change jobs and move to another platform — for the ideas they publish. If one’s day job is offering ideas, then of course one may lose their job over the ideas they share to the world.

More generally, one’s employer has a legitimate interest in what one says outside the job about the kind of stuff one does on the job. On Twitter I talk about design, because I work as a designer; if I say something stupid or smart about design on Twitter, then of course it will affect my livelihood.

Similarly, for a manager or executive with significant power and authority, especially over other people, a wide range of ideas that person expresses reflect on the fitness of the leadership judgment which they exercise. If an airline executive advocates for the Flat Earth theory, then that suggests they might not be right for, ah, global responsibility. If a manager expresses racist bigotry, then that indicates that they are unfit to manage people, who may be people of color … or who may not be, because the bigoted manager drove them away.

And of course an employer has an unmistakable interest in the ideas which a worker voices at the workplace. A bigoted machinist working a lathe alone who keeps their mouth shut about their bigotry well enough that their colleagues do not know what they think is one thing; if that bigoted machinist wears a swastika T-shirt and spews offensive epithets in the lunchroom, their colleagues are harmed and the employer has not just a right to kick them out, but a responsibility.


Erik said...

"If there are things you cannot say because it might cost you professional opportunities in work unrelated to what you said... then that is no less coercive than a law."

This sentence needs parsing. It deserves to be gamed out.

Scenario: a Leebo of Leebotown expresses in public a hatred for the Weebles of Weebleville; in specific, the Leebo loudly advocates for forced sterilization of Weebles, whom the Leebo continuously calls by a derisive, Weeble-specific, and generally-agreed-upon-as-insulting epithet.

This Leebo works in a field in which the Leebo will never interact with Weebles or design or work on anything that impacts Weebles.

That said, the odious nature of the Leebo's utterances leads prospective employers to refuse the Leebo employment, since they fear that hiring the Leebo could be read as a tacit endorsement of the Leebo's sentiments*.

Question: does the Leebo have cause to invoke violation of protection of free speech?

* Or, for that matter, because all of the prospective employers think that the Leebo's statements are odious and wrongheaded.

Confession: I'd hoped to come up with more scenarios, but just concocting this one wore me out.

Jonathan Korman said...

The Leebo can indeed claim that this is a violation of the principle of free speech. I can see no bright line identifying what speech is odious enough to allow for employers to police employee's speech outside of their work domain that does not present opportunity for mischief.

See Trumbo, Dalton

J'Carlin said...

I think the bright line is whether the speaker is wearing the uniform either figuratively or literally. If one is introduced as VP of X X can be justifyably concerned with the content of the speech. On a soapbox in sweats, no.
This comes under the consequences resulting from offensive speech. If the listener can boycot X as a result of the VP's speech, X has an interest. If the only consequence is a punch in the face, X has no interest.

Jonathan Korman said...

Aye. There is a difference between speaking that is directly relevant to one's profession and speaking which is not.

J'Carlin said...

As noted elsewhere Free Speech must include the possibility of rotten tomatoes being thrown at the speaker. Venues where rotten tomatoes are inappropriate or forbidden have the right to limit free speech.