Free Speech: A Primer

-by Michael Welshy Lloyd
Freedom of speech is the single most important human right in existence. It’s the mechanism by which democracy is able to function, the platform from which the rights of men can be disseminated, and the only known antidote to tyranny and totalitarianism.
In the wake of comedians being arrested for offensive jokes, and while Journalists are being labelled “far-right” and banned for life from entering supposed free countries, the interest in the so-called “free speech war” is building and for the first time in recent memory, protecting free speech is at the forefront of many people’s minds. With some major news outlets doing everything in their power to tar free speech as a far-right issue, it’s also clear that this will not be an easily-won battle.
I thought it was about time for me to articulate my own position on free speech. A primer in free speech absolutism and why such a position is vital to the continued prosperity of free nations.
There are 3 key concepts that should be kept in mind, and that will be explored fully below.
  1. Freedom of speech is a human right and a concept that exists independently of the US constitution, or any other national or international law.
  2. Free speech exists when a person is never prevented from sharing their opinions. It does not require that no punishment exists for the consequences of speech
  3. There are 3 distinct areas in which speech must be examined so that such punishments do not infringe upon individual rights. These are “Government” “Business” and “Individual”
Through these concepts, I intend to illustrate that free speech absolutism can maximize individual liberty and protect democratic functions without the devolution into chaos that is often characterized by its opponents.
Number 1 . Liberty is not Anarchy
What is a human right?
Many have attempted to settle the debate, but I believe the truth to be self-evident. Rights are the manifestation of man’s independence. They are the innate rules by which our interaction with each other is naturally limited.
They are not endowed by God, if such a thing exists, nor are they granted by government. They are an extension of our own minds into the material world. To quote John Locke:

“Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”
― John Locke, Second Treatise of Government

Put simply, my rights are that which I would protect and therefore define the limits of my power to affect others. Like gravity, they existed before we understood how or why. They continue to exist when governments fail to protect them or when they are being routinely infringed. My right is to protect my own life, liberty and property. As everyone shares these rights, they naturally limit my moral action.
What this means is that the only moral use of force, the only time when the rights of an individual can be justifiably infringed, is in protecting another from the same.
This is why Liberty is not anarchy.
A system must exist, be it legislative, social or otherwise, that protects each individual from tyranny.  For a person to be able to exercise their rights, they must be protected when another would infringe upon them. To speak, they must sometimes be protected from the speech of others.
Freedom of speech is the first and most important right that exists. It gives me the ability to speak when my rights are being infringed. When another person is stepping outside of the realm of their own protection and limiting my liberty. When a person uses force, or a government becomes totalitarian, speech is the mechanism by which this infringement can be demonstrated.
This applies to more than just the direct protection from violence. Freedom of speech empowers us to highlight trends that would lead to such results. It is the open exchange of ideas wherein every voice is a part of the whole, and where the discussion prevents the group from sliding into dogma.
It protects even the craziest of ideas from being silenced, because all new ideas are considered crazy until they can be fully explored.
Ultimately, free speech absolutism means that no person should be silenced, but it does not mean there can be no consequences to harmful speech…
Number 2. Protecting Speech by Law
When free speech is being respected, it means no person is prevented from speaking. As we have previously defined, it is sometimes necessary that we step in to ensure the rights of a person are not infringed by the actions of another, but this must be to prevent direct infringement, not the risk or potential for infringement.
Given this, there are two scenarios that may entail some intervention:
Your speech directly infringes on the rights of another.
Your speech could result in the rights of another being infringed.
In the first scenario, action must be taken to prevent the rights of one being infringed upon by another, but this is a vanishingly rare possibility when talking about speech. My ability to speak does not (usually) prevent your ability to speak. My words cannot affect your life, liberty or property directly. Exceptions would be the use of organized protest to drown out the speech of another, or the use of false statements to defame an individual. In these scenarios, it may be justified to intervene to prevent one party infringing upon another (But this should come from the individual, not the state. See part 3).
Just as a “your right to swing your fist ends at my nose”, as does your right to speak end when it would prevent my own rights from being realized. You cannot speak to stop me speaking, and you cannot speak lies to damage my character (because any post-hoc punishment does not reinstate my ability to speak if sufficient social damage is done), and so I may be justified in using my own right to speak to attempt to limit yours.
For the second scenario, we talk only of the potential for harm. This is the proverbial “Fire!” in the theatre, and is where the majority of debate lies. What must be remembered here is that holding a person accountable for the results of their speech does not infringe upon their ability to speak. If a person causes a stampede, they can be punished for the harm they cause. If they incite violence, they can be held responsible for that violence. It does not mean that we can pre-emptively silence that person, as this creates the justification for the infringement of human rights based on subjective interpretations of potential outcomes.
As long as a system exists to punish those that willfully use their speech to incite harm, there is a deterrent in place. It is not perfect, but a society that would prevent a person speaking will eventually harm far more than those it seeks to protect.
3. The difference between the state and the individual
The rules above should be delineated to the state and the individual.
Government
Government exists to protect individual rights. This is, in my opinion, its only role. For this reason, it should never infringe upon free speech. In the US, the bill of rights enshrined this into law as the first amendment.

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.

In practice, this covers the previously defined rules of “Post-hoc punishment”. The government may punish the outcomes of speech when harm can be demonstrated, but it may never interfere with the right of an individual to speak. The state is too easily able to abuse the ability to abridge the speech of the individual, and so even when direct infringement of the rights of another may be present (such as previously mentioned weaponized protests), the government may only punish outcomes.
Individual
The individual is the part often lost in the debate of infringement of the rights of others (Ironic, isn’t it?). This is especially common in the US. Given the above-mentioned bill of rights, people forget that they too can infringe upon the rights of others, and while limits exist in law to prevent government abuse of power, there should also be moral considerations when we ourselves act.
We come back to the “fire” in a crowded theatre, or the weaponized protests meant to prevent people from speaking. Here, we can justifiably intervene when it is obvious to us that the words of others could cause harm. We can do this because we have no institutional power. I cannot force you to stop speaking, but I can reasonably raise my concerns and attempt to convince you not to speak. This means exercising your speech to protect the rights of others, not to infringe upon them.
However, if we use our speech simply to prevent certain ideas from being spoken or certain discussions from occurring, we then are trying to limit the rights of others, and this becomes morally unacceptable.
This is why Antifa are morally wrong, as their attempt is to shut down a discussion. They are not trying to protect anyone, they are using their rights collectively to drown out the rights of others. In contrast, using our own speech to try to prevent Antifa from taking that action is justifiable, as our words seek to protect the rights of those individuals who would be silenced.
Business
The final consideration is that of business, which should ultimately be considered an extension of the individual.
The right of the business is to protect its property and liberty. It should be free from intervention by the state when protecting these rights on behalf of its owners, shareholders and employees.
Morally, a business should hold to the same principles as the individual, never attempting to silence speech or punish those who share unpopular opinions, but as it’s first duty is to itself, it is legally justified in firing employees or suppressing anything which may interfere with that duty.
In practice, this means that companies like Twitter or Google (who are in the limelight for firing employees or demonetizing or banning certain content creators) are in an important position. Firstly, they should be absolutely legally free to discriminate as they please. They can create an echo chamber, they can police their content and fire their staff. They should not be prevented by the state from doing so. However, like the individual, they should be morally cautious of such actions as they contribute to culture in a way unprecedented in human history. While their duty is to themselves, they make a powerful moral statement when they engage in the suppression of free speech.
Times are Changing
Freedom of speech is above all, the right to say what you believe to be true. It is my right to hear your opinion and decide for myself how to act. We may personally disagree, but our action should be to bring attention to and discuss that disagreement. If we intend simply to prevent the discussion, we take the freedom of choice from everyone who would hear it. This must be considered in the context of the individual versus the state, of direct harm and potential harm, but one thing is absolute: Your right to speak exists, and must be protected. In order for this discussion to be fruitful, we must not forget that fundamental truth.
Free speech absolutism is not a far-right principle, nor an impractical ideological ideal. It is the understanding that human rights are non-negotiable, and that it is our job to make their importance known.