“On a supposed right to tell the truth”: Support for freedom of speech does not mean we all have to provide space on the internet for everyone else to have their say

There is a fundamental misunderstanding around concerning freedom of speech. It is this: the apparently common view that freedom of speech requires individuals to provide space in the comments section of their websites for the obnoxious, boring, inconsistent, rude, tedious, ungrammatical views of every Tom Dick and Harriet who happens to wish it. And that, having provided such space, they must above all not delete any comments, without trespassing on the Golden Calf of free speech.

This, luckily, is an error. There is no general duty to provide others with a platform for their views. That’s what Hyde Park Corner is for.

Additionally to Hyde Park Corner, Tom Dick and Harriet can even now, for a modest annual fee, set up their own website to express their views online, where others can freely read it, or freely ignore it. So those of you who can’t get to London need have no fear. You could even publish your views as an e-book! You can do what the hell you like with your views. But what you can’t do is claim that if someone removes your views from a particular space, then ipso facto your freedom of speech is violated.

Your freedom of speech is violated only if you are forbidden to express your views in any manner, or, to refine this somewhat (because of course concrete substance is important as well as abstract rights), if you are not allowed to express your views in any manner where you’d be reasonably seen as participating in the social hum of general communication. Of course, nobody at all might listen to you. But that’s their right too.

So, given Hyde Park Corner, given the possibility of walking along the street muttering to yourself, given the chance to put a poster in your own window, given the bar at the local pub, given the internet and the possibility of setting up your own website, removal of views from particular internet locations which somebody else has paid for, has set up, and is running, does not, as far as I can fathom, amount to a violation of freedom of speech.

So why do people seem to think it does? I have no idea. Perhaps it’s some hangover from that phase of childhood in which ‘Look at me! Look what I can do!’ is the most dominant driver of behaviour, so that others are lulled into thinking that every shout to be heard must get its response. But what it often means is that if someone writes some old crap on a comments section, there seems to be a default idea that any removal of that old crap is prima facie a violation of free speech and so has to be justified in some often pretty rigorous terms. Some old crap was written about me a while back. When I politely pointed out to the geezer running the website that it was a bunch of old crap, the pious response was I suspect typical: that of course they had no wish to have comments which were false or defamatory, but since they wished to uphold freedom of speech, they’d only remove them if I could show in detail what exactly was wrong with them. Now, had this website-hosting geezer said, ‘I’ll allow whatever I jolly well want on my website, and will only remove it if there are legal reasons for me to do so’ that would have been fair enough. But why the reference to free speech? Apart from making it sound as if I was some kind of Stalinist or apologist for North Korea.

Does freedom of speech mean that we have to abandon editing? No. Does freedom of speech mean that we can’t tell someone to shut up if they start discussing their views on bestiality over the pudding course? No. Does freedom of speech mean that we have to sit there listening to unpleasant gossip about someone’s substandard personal hygiene, unable to block our ears for fear of violating a fundamental principle of liberal society? No. Does freedom of speech mean that we can make a bitchy remark when a perfectly non-bitchy remark would have done the job? Well, of course, maybe the recipient of the bitchy remark deserved it, but freedom of speech in itself does not give us a general license to speak in any way, at any time, in any arena.

The problem arises from a failure sufficiently to appreciate the many social and ethical norms which govern communication, and to focus too much on the simple idea of information being transmitted or repressed. This is an extremely common oversight, and one I’ve come across and written on in much of my research work. For instance, philosophers and lawyers interested in questions about the transmission of medical or genetic information talk about who has a right to know, or who has a right not to know. The whole emphasis is solely on some information, some knowledge, and who has it, or who does not have it. But when sociologists actually ask people about what matters to them, a whole vista of extra moral concern opens up – how to tell, who deserves to know, what the best time to tell is, how exactly to put it, what to leave out, what to include.

Likewise, if concern about freedom of speech only considers the brute information, then it can quickly erode into a simplistic slogan that any piece of information can be spoken or written at any time and in any manner, and from there, morph to the idea that any piece of information has some kind of right to be in any particular place. Put like that, it’s obviously false. Immanuel Kant in his essay ‘On a supposed right to tell lies from benevolent motives’ defended a view that few find defensible, that even if some gert big burly bloke (translating freely from the German) were to come to the door armed with an axe and say ‘Where’s her indoors got to then, mate? Tell us quick, ain’t got time to hang about, like,’ one must stick to the duty of truthfulness and tell him that she’s just upstairs having a shower, right behind that flimsy nylon shower curtain. Many think this is so patently absurd that they take it as a reductio ad absurdum of Kant’s moral philosophy. Of course we have a right to lie from benevolent motives. And we also have a right to delete comments on the internet from benevolent motives. Or indeed, for any other motive.

Paula Boddington

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