Modern Censorship

These days, the idea of censorship is one that most people don’t really have a lot of understanding about. It would seem lurking among Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and even xkcd, many people believe (wrongfully) that making an environment that disallows dissenting opinions isn’t a form of censorship. The common argument against this form of censorship is very commonly cited as follows below:

The freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences.

and

Freedom of Speech means the government can’t put you in jail for what you say.

Both of these statements are patently false, but commonly parroted, because of a very common misconception: That idea that Free Speech is a right granted to you by the government, and more specifically in the United States, by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

According to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances

the government does not have the ability to put limits on the freedom of speech. In fact, due to the way the First Amendment is written, it implicitly states that freedom of speech, press, assembly, and petition are all inherent rights by simply being human. By the very definition, the government asserts that humans have an innate right to speech, and explicitly that the government cannot take away this right. By making the wording of Freedom of speech as something that is explicitly listed as something that cannot be taken away, they acknowledge that individuals have the right to speak how they wish, and that is a right afforded to everyone, regardless of the laws surrounding them.

In fact, this has been the part of an enormous debate on the internet, one that many people who now consider themselves on the right side of history to be now exempt from the ideals of free speech. Things like an xkcd comic about free speech show a very basic understanding of free speech as a philosophical concept, and in fact miss the entire point of free speech as a concept. If we allow the mob to dictate what behaviors are acceptable by shouting people out of their livelihoods or allow mob justice to prevail as the de facto law of what is acceptable, what does having the right to speak really matter?

It’s easy to look at the quotes that are for censorship as sensible, but let’s break them down.

The freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences.

Here we have a very simple phrase that is uttered nonstop on the internet, be it Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, Salon, xkcd, Buzzfeed, but it’s simply not true. To have freedom means explicitly that there are no consequences for the behavior provided. To quote the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, freedom is

the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action

To impose your will over someone else’s speech through veiled threats of what may or may not happen are an act of coercion, and through that act, a person cannot be said to be free. If an individual is fired from their job because of their own individual speech, they do not have freedom of speech. When you, as an individual do not have the ability or the capacity to say what you want, then you do not have free speech.

It’s a common argument to say “this happens often at workplaces, where people are fired for what they say on the job, how is this any different?” Particularly this is because of their capacity to speak on an individual level. When Dom Imes called women on the Rutgers University Women’s basket ball team “nappy headed hoes” he was presenting himself as a member of MSNBC. He wasn’t speaking only on his behalf. At his job he represented MSNBC, and by going against their image, he was rightly fired, as MSNBC didn’t agree with his message, however when Justine Sacco was fired for a tweet saying she won’t get AIDS because she was white, she was fired due to what she spoke without speaking on behalf of her company. It’s a blurry, complicated mess, but at the end of the day, when an individual cannot speak individually on their individual opinions, they don’t have freedom of speech.

Freedom of Speech means the government can’t put you in jail for what you say.

This statement only paints part of a picture, and makes the presumption again that the Freedom of Speech is the same as the First Amendment of the constitution. When black individuals during the civil rights movement were targeted by White Citizen’s Councils, who made calls to get black individuals fired to intimidate them from assembling or used threats of violence to stop speech, the black individuals did not have free speech, even though the White Citizen’s Councils only used words. By creating an environment where black individuals and white sympathizers could not speak their mind, these White Citizen’s Councils stripped away the rights of white and black individuals to speak and congregate to challenge their status quo.

Freedom of Speech is simple. You must be willing to allow your opposition to be heard, and you must not create an environment where dissent is disallowed. The mobs on twitter that rallied against Justine Sacco and countless others are a form of mob dissent whose consequences run contrary to that of free speech. Individuals who fear of retribution from the mob have no more freedom to speech than those who find rebuke from a tyrannical government. When a culture of destroying dissent occurs, fascism is not far behind.