Freedom of Speech

I think we can, at times, underestimate the complexity of free speech as a concept.

Two examples of what some today deem to be ‘free speech’ and yet, when you analyse it, they both – arguably, and I am arguing it – mitigate against it.

The use of vested-interest megaphones. When Reagan repealed the fairness laws which had the media representing both sides of any debate equally, particularly in the realm of politics, people claimed it as an initiative intended to protect free speech. It’s a strong argument. The media should not suffer from government restrictions, we all know where that can lead. People should not, therefore, be told what to publish in any way.

The result has been that vested interests have usurped ostensibly reliable news information outlets as campaign platforms for their particular political viewpoint. The obvious example is the Fox News network in the USA. This supposed ‘freedom’, then, merely serves to warp information presented as news from a supposedly trustworthy source. The very thing we fear – that the government will take over the media and feed us propaganda, inimical to democracy given that it leaves no room for informed opinion – is now reflected in corporate interests having control of the media for their own ends.

Is that, then, ‘free speech’? If so, should it be defended?

Heckling. Heckling is a way of using speech to intimidate other speakers, or to drown them out. We see it typically in internet forums with trolling, something I have seen some defend on the grounds that the hecklers have their right to ‘free speech’. On a broader, more important level, again in the American arena, consider the Westboro Baptist Church in their own disruptive behaviour, again defended as the exercise of ‘free speech’.

In both these instances, perhaps in many another, the ‘legislative’ control of free speech may broaden the opportunity for it overall. ‘Free speech’ is not, I would suggest, a simple beast, and we may kill it in making those very arguments intended to defend it. Indeed, in making such arguments, many may themselves have fallen foul of the propaganda of those louder voices intent upon drowning out the opposition; those, then, intent upon killing free speech.

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