In the light of this recent spate of grotesque online abuse – which has seen high profile women on twitter receive the most horrifying threats of sexual and other violence – we’re being encouraged to believe that freedom of speech and freedom from abuse are opposed. We’re being encouraged to believe that, if we support freedom of speech, we (or, rather, women and the vulnerable) must tolerate a climate of unrelenting online abuse. Or, alternatively, that if we seek to eradicate online abuse we must set our faces against freedom of speech. This is a false choice.
First, consider what freedom of speech means. Much of our thinking on this issue is conditioned by the First Amendment to the US Constitution, the relevant sections of which read
Congress shall make no law […] abridging the freedom of speech [...]
This encourages us to think about freedom of speech in terms of the relationship of the state to the individual: abridgement of the freedom of speech is something the state may impose upon the individual. But this is a very narrow understanding of the concept. It contains no acknowledgement of the necessity to think about freedom of speech in terms of the relationship of individuals one to another. It does not reflect the fact that not just governments but individuals may seek to abridge the freedom to speak.
Real freedom to speak consists in the state of being free from any and all influences which prevent or inhibit us from speaking freely. This includes freedom from laws which a government may pass, but it also includes freedom from many things that individuals may do. Not least amongst these is intimidation via violence or threats of violence.
If a public meeting were disrupted by an aggressive minority who shouted down women with threats of rape when they tried to speak, we would have no difficulty in recognising that this would inhibit women from speaking. We would have no difficulty in recognising that this was, therefore, an infringement of those women’s right to speak freely. In a well-run public meeting, the aggressive minority would be told that their opponents had as much right to speak as they do. They would be warned to control themselves. If they failed to do so they would be excluded from the meeting, and therefore unable to speak themselves. There should be no controversy in applying the same principles online as off.
This may seem to lead to a paradox – that defending the freedom of one individual to speak means restricting the speech of another. But this is simply the familiar paradox that arises with all of the fundamental human rights. My right to life does not grant me licence to murder another and harvest their body parts if I find myself in need of a critical organ transplant, because to do so would be to infringe their right to life. As with the right to life, so with the right to speak: my freedom to speak does not grant me licence to intimidate another into silence, because to do so would be to infringe their freedom to speak.
This principle is easily codified. It has been light-heartedly summarised as “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.” It could be expressed more formally in terms that the freedom of the individual can be defended only so long as it does not impinge on the freedom of another. Either way, it must be one of the founding principles of any functional community – unless this principle is by some means honoured in our interactions with each other, we can never come together.
It is sometimes argued that those who are targeted with abuse should “toughen up”, and learn to ignore it. This is to misapply the responsibility – it is the responsibility of those who issue threats not to abuse their freedom to speak – but it is also to miss the point. An online world in which only those who are tough enough to withstand abuse are able to speak is an online world in which many will not speak. It is an online world impoverished, to the detriment of us all, by the absence of those who cannot endure such an environment, or simply prefer not to.
There is no tension between freedom from abuse and freedom of speech. They are different aspects of the same freedom. Freedom of speech is impossible in an environment in which people do not feel free to speak, and it is impossible for people to feel free to speak when they expect to be targeted with abuse, and intimidated by threats of violence, whenever they open their mouths.
Freedom of speech consists not just in the right to speak ourselves, but in the responsibility not to inhibit or prevent others from speaking. Unless we establish a system in which everyone is required to honour not just the right but also the responsibility, we cannot have genuine freedom of speech.