OPINION: Freedom of Speech: A Human Right

By Michael Welshy Lloyd
April 9, 2018

“Freedom of speech means protection from the government, not from private business.”

How often have you heard this phrase thrown around as a response to objections made by individuals prevented from speaking on social media platforms, universities, and private lectures?

Well, it’s not entirely wrong, but it’s also not the whole picture. In my last article on this topic, I noted that businesses “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.”

Given Tommy Robinson’s recent twitter ban, I wanted to explore this in more detail, and make clear two positions that I believe to be fundamentally true, and deeply important to this issue.

  • Twitter, as a private entity, has, and should have, every legal right to ban individuals from it’s platform for any reason.
  • Twitter should not exercise this right outside of extreme circumstances of demonstrable calls to violence.

So why is this opening statement not entirely accurate?

Because Freedom of Speech is a fundamental human right. The bill of rights exists to protect individuals from having their rights infringed by the government, but that does not mean that their rights cannot be infringed upon by individuals or by businesses. Many people have come to conflate “Freedom of Speech” as a human right with Freedom of Speech as represented in the first amendment.

The constitution exists as a protection on individuals from the power of government, but in our modern era, where private enterprise can almost monopolize public discourse, we must consider our rights outside the context of government.

For this reason, point number one is a given. The constitution protects companies like twitter from interference by the government, as it should.

Point number two however, is where we must be clear: while Twitter has the right to kick people from its platform, YouTube can demonetize and facebook can “ZUCC,” in doing so they may well be restricting the ability of individuals to speak, a right those individuals should not quietly forgo.

This does not mean government should be involved in private industry, it means that we should speak out against this private censorship.

But why?

When private platforms discriminate against certain political viewpoints, they create an echo chamber that may encompass the majority of political discussion. John Stuart Mill once summarized:

“If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

The reason that censorship is a bad idea is the same whether that censorship comes from government or private enterprise. We undermine the free exchange of ideas, prevent discussion, and ultimately create a population of individuals unable to fully understand the validity of their beliefs. If you take away any challenge to the intellectual hegemony, even if the positions held within are completely valid, the lack of constructive discussion removes our understanding of why those ideas are valid. We then have no critical faculties with which to examine and deconstruct the bad ideas when they surface.

Whether you believe people like Tommy Robinson or Milo Yiannopoulos are right, wrong, or somewhere in between is mostly irrelevant. What matters is that they represent a not-insignificant slice of public discourse, and any time they are prevented from speaking on what is otherwise an open platform, the ability for you and I to hear that discourse and form our own arguments and conclusions is undermined.

So yes, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook have every right to silence certain political viewpoints on platforms they own, but unless they are exercising that power to protect people from direct calls to violence, the harm they inflict is much greater than the supposed good they claim to be creating.

We understand that the government should not intervene, but this is precisely why it’s so important that we speak out against this misuse of power. We are the only thing that stands between the free exchange of ideas and the creation of the largest echo chamber the world has ever seen.

If we wish to protect ourselves from the worst ideas in history, we must ensure that those ideas are heard, and that the right of the individual to hear those positions is maintained. You cannot protect people from bad ideas, you can only inoculate them through exposure to true, open discussion.

The opinions are of the author alone, and while totally awesome, do not reflects The Liberalists as a movement”