Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

Obliterating The Free Speech Objection to Criticism

“People who cry about freedom of speech when they are criticized. Is your opinion that stupid that your only defense is that your opinion is not illegal?”

- Kawa Zolfagary, writer and consultant (source, translated from Swedish by E. K.)

censorship

You have just posted a detailed point-by-point refutation of the absurd pseudoscientific assertions made by some random crank on the Internet. You even took the time to included explanatory graphs and references to the scientific literature. How considerate. Instead of graciously accepting defeat or launching relevant counterarguments, the before-mentioned crank decided to knock over all of the pieces, shoot the football with a shotgun, and go home. Another, closely related scenario, occurs when the crank posts a lot of verbal abuse without any intellectual content on your blog or forum. Despite trying to calm the person down and promote rational discussion, the crank just goes on and on and you see no other option than to remove his or her comment privileges. Both of these scenarios typically degenerate into the crank making the free speech objection. It goes something like this: “you are just trying to silence and censor critics!!1″, as if free speech meant that cranks have a right not to be challenged or that individuals have a legal obligation to give cranks a platform for spreading their mindbogglingly stupid stuff.

Let us take a detailed look at the legal and philosophical aspects of free speech and the free speech objection to criticism.

Legal versus philosophical interpretations of free speech

Legally, free speech means that it is illegal for the government to restrict the speech or expression of citizens. Depending on the country, there are a couple of exceptions, such as incitement or threats and so on. There are many different philosophical interpretations of the free speech concept. Some focus on reduction of harm, whereas others focus on being charitable with letting people be heard, even outside of the legal context. In other words, they may display a large tolerance towards falsehoods expressed by cranks. Yet others go further than that, saying that free speech is absolute i .e. there are no legitimate restrictions of free speech, whether legally or philosophically. From such a perspective, the blocking of a single troll is immoral.

The irrelevance of legal free speech rights to online interaction between individuals

If someone makes a counterargument to your assertion, this does not violate any legal right to free speech, as this is not an attempt by the government to restrict your expression or speech.

Getting blocked because you are, or perceived to be, a troll does not violate legal free speech rights. This is because the person banning you is not the government. It is just another person.

Asserting absolute free speech as the right to stand unchallenged is contradictory

Even cases where free speech refers to the philosophical position of treating it as an absolute, the appeal to free speech is unsound. Such a request would imply that critics have no right to challenge your opinion and that would be incompatible with the broadest philosophical interpretation of free speech as an absolute applying to all persons. Asserting that your claims have the right to stand unchallenged while simultaneously defending absolute free speech is obviously self-contradictory.

The philosophy of banning

Commenting on a blog, forum or video channel is a privilege, not a right. Just as you have no intellectual requirement to stand and listen to someone intruding on your property and shouting about their beliefs, there is no requirement to do this online either. With that said, it is often considered charitable to let other people post their arguments as a response to your blog etc. but the final discretion is up to the owner of the blog. If he or she does not want the comment there, he can delete it without any legal or philosophical repercussions.

Erratic banning, comment removal or comment editing without any reasonable justification can be done by a blogger as the owner has the right to decide for him- or herself, but the behavior can rightly be seen as morally questionable or dishonest.

The free speech objection as a cognitive defense

I doubt that most of the free speech objections that are made target people who edit comments. Most of the people who levy this objection are probably just unable to come up with credible counterarguments and starts feeling estranged. This psychological explanation is not evidence that they are wrong, but a way to explain how the behavior has arisen now that we know that the free speech objection is invalid. Imagine how satisfying it would feel emotionally for the average crank to believe that opponents are acting they way they are (criticizing or banning) because they are evil and have no moral qualms about breaking sacred legal and philosophical principles, than doing it because the person is merely an unintelligent and dishonest crank.

The last ditch “case” for the free speech objection: UN says freedom of speech applies to the Internet

“Actually, the UN Human Rights Council has declared that free speech also applies online”, they say, and link an online news item, such as this one from Reuters or they might even link directly to the agenda item document.

Shame they did not bother to read it. The agenda item document says that:

Affirms that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice, in accordance with articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

This only means that the government cannot restrict your free speech online above and beyond what they can do offline. It does not state that you have the right to assert things unchallenged or that people who consider you a troll can’t ban or block you. It just means that the government cannot restrict you more severely online than offline.

Conclusion

In almost all cases, deploying the free speech objection is a cognitive defense against defeat and a smokescreen to shift the focus from the lack of intellectual substance in the assertions made by the crank to a perceived wrongdoing from your part. In the legal sphere, free speech means that the government, with some exception, are not allowed to restrict your speech or expression. It has zero relevance for the relationship between two private citizens. It is logically contradictory to believe that your opinion have the right to stand unchallenged and believe in absolute free speech for everyone. Absolute free speech means that no assertion have the right to stand unchallenged. While it is charitable to let other people, even those that disagree, comment on your blog, commenting is a privilege, not a right. The last ditch case in favor of the free speech objection relates to referencing a decision by the UN Human Rights Council. This fails because it only says that governments are not allowed to restrict free speech to a greater degree than done offline.

The free speech objection is just another denialist tactic.

5 responses to “Obliterating The Free Speech Objection to Criticism

  1. StealthBadger August 12, 2012 at 20:21

    Another note is that not all speech is the same, and it’s silly to expect every moderator of every forum to treat any expression with equal respect. While it’s possible to abuse this discretion, an extreme example can be helpful in illustrating the difference. Whether you consider it more or less meaningful, or more or less appropriate given the venue, a reasoned argument is qualitatively different than rolling your face back and forth across the keyboard and hitting “Post Comment.” Both are expressions of different things, but the first engages with the other people in the conversation, while the second is a one-way expression of anger and frustration.

  2. cehbeach August 12, 2012 at 20:28

    It’s sad that this actually has to be explained to many people

  3. Pingback: How Pseudoscientific Cranks Abuse Freedom « Debunking Denialism

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