Why Freedom Of Speech Does Not Mean Freedom From Criticism

I’m quite privileged to have grown up in a society that values freedom of speech — the ability to say what you think without certain consequences, such as being jailed or imprisoned for what you’ve said. But I’ve noticed lately that there seems to be a general and at least somewhat widespread misconception about what freedom of speech really means.

There’s a reason why I wrote “without certain consequences” above; freedom of speech protects you from government retaliation for what you say … but that’s only one very small potential consequence for exercising your freedom.

What might happen to you if you decide to let loose and preach your viewpoint? Well, depending on who you are and what you say, any number of things. You might lose your job. You might lose access to certain educational resources, like a scholarship or even your admission to a certain school as a whole. You might lose friends. Neighbors might shun you.

This isn’t a new development. The concept of freedom of speech has never meant freedom from consequences or freedom from criticism. So why is this attitude emerging that it should?

Social media as a (the?) culprit

I have traditionally been a relatively early adopter of social media, from MySpace to Snapchat — though I’m not active on either platform anymore. Although I have a business and “ghost” profile on Facebook, I decided to deactivate my presence on that social media behemoth late last year … which I may or may not write about at some point; other more eloquent people have made the case for deleting Facebook already, and all I can say is that I’m not at all sorry I did it. Getting rid of it was one of the best decisions I made in 2018, in fact. (I’m still active on Instagram, that said, and have no plans to delete it!)

One big reason why I try and discard social media platforms is because I don’t like how we talk to each other on social media — as a species, as groups among a species, as individuals, you name it. There’s no “connecting with people” or “thoughtful discussion” when everyone is primed to think the worst of everyone else, including people you might know, like, and consider to be friends.

It’s like an internet comment section, but instead of a group of people who might or might not have read the article, it includes almost every single person you know. Shielded behind our computer screens and keyboards, it’s easy to forget that there are other actual real live human beings reading our words and reacting to them, and we often behave as though … there aren’t. So people (including myself at times) say things that they would never repeat to someone else face-to-face, and then those people are very surprised — shocked and hurt, even! — when those who read what they’ve written form an opinion about them based on what they’ve written.

The advice-seeking evidence

I’m a bit of an advice junkie, and I’ve seen a few requests for advice on several informal forums that tend to go a little something like this:

“I was arguing with a coworker/a spouse’s coworker on social media and I said some things that now have gotten me/my spouse in trouble with the human resources department. I might get fired/get my spouse fired for violating the company’s social media policy. Can I hire a lawyer to protect my freedom of speech?”

First of all, it is a sad commentary on our educational system that a significant number of people don’t seem to understand what, exactly, freedom of speech means.

And second of all, the answer is no. I mean, these folks could probably try to hire a lawyer, but this ties back into the “first of all” — freedom of speech protects you from arrest if you say something that someone doesn’t like.

That is literally it. You aren’t guaranteed a job that you get to keep even if you say heinous things. People don’t have to like you or invite you to their parties if you say heinous things. The higher-education program in which you were enrolled can choose to disenroll you against your will if you say heinous things. As long as you weren’t arrested? Your freedom of speech is intact!

Let’s take Roseanne Barr as a high-profile example. Now, at least she wasn’t talking about hiring a lawyer, so we’ll give her credit there, but if you post racist opinions on Twitter, guess what: You can be fired! Your employer has a right to tell you to hit the road, even if you’re the star of a show that was named after you. They are not violating your rights.

Everyone has the right to speak …

The thing that I love most about this country is the right to share your opinion. I have the right to talk about freedom of speech on my blog, or stand outside my house and tell anyone who walks by what I think, or to post a sign in my yard (I don’t belong to an HOA), or just to have a conversation with my husband in public about it. And as long as I’m not endangering the public by inciting violence or yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater, nobody can arrest me for it! That is pretty amazing when you think about human history.

In the same way, everyone else has the right to say whatever they want about any race, gender, sexual orientation, lifestyle, or way of being. This gets a little trickier on social media, where there are actually terms of use, believe it or not — you don’t have the right to use Twitter indefinitely if the powers that be at Twitter decide you are violating the terms of use. Or any other platform, for that matter. They can take away your right to post at any time if you don’t follow the rules, and you might argue that it’s censorship (we could certainly have that discussion), but your rights? Are not being violated. You are still free to walk around in the world and say whatever you like to your friends and neighbors live and in person, and you won’t be arrested for it, so your freedom of speech is actually intact even if you got banned from Twitter. Or fired from your job for what you posted on Facebook. If you tell a coworker that you hate them and that their kids should have been drowned at birth, your employer can fire you for that, and your rights were not violated.

… And everyone has the right to form opinions about what other people say

Here is what these freedom of speech crusaders seem to miss: Although they have the right to say what they like, other people also have rights. Those rights include the right to decide whether or not they want to be around you at all, or employ you, or invite you to a party, or be friends with you on Facebook, or friends with you in reality.

For a long time, certain groups of people (mostly minorities) didn’t really get to exercise this right as much as other groups did. It’s not always possible to decide you’re not going to interact with someone who has a history of making racist or misogynistic statements if you still want to have a career path and that person outranks you at work, for example. And the threat of violence if you speak up against someone who is saying racist or misogynistic or homophobic things is ever-present.

Things are changing, though — slowly, certainly, but still changing. It’s more commonly accepted that you can and perhaps should be shunned if you can’t play nicely with groups of people who don’t match your own personal group of people. That is not discrimination or reverse racism; it’s the rest of the world exercising their own right to decide how much attention they want to give you, and if past statements of yours has brought some people to the conclusion that they want to give you zero attention, then they aren’t infringing on your rights by ignoring you or blocking you, or reporting what you’ve said to your employer, or whatever recourse has been taken.

I love freedom of speech. I think it’s truly one of the rights that makes America a great country.

But freedom to say what you like without landing in jail as a result is not the same thing as freedom to say what you like without facing any criticism or consequences for what you said. Everyone around you has the right to decide how they feel about you at any given moment in time and make decisions about how they interact with you moving forward.

Photo by Tamara Menzi on Unsplash