My social streams are burning glowing red with passionate debates on “freedom of speech”. These debates are often linked to a couple of powerful social networks (finally) kicking that bitter and angry man in the White House off their platforms. Mind: they gave it a lot of thought before suspending his accounts. Trump could permit himself way more than citizen lambda ever could. He got ample warning from both networks that he was over the line. By a mile.
But if you are pro or contra Trump is not really the subject here. It’s the “freedom of speech” that gets used and abused like there is no tomorrow that triggered me. Honestly, for some of you: it does not mean what you think it means 😉.
It’s a human right
Freedom of expression is recognized as a human right under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It is recognized in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR): “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice“. (thank you Wikipedia).
ICCPR specifies that the exercise of these rights carries “special duties and responsibilities“ and can “therefore be subject to certain restrictions when necessary for respect of the rights or reputation of others or for the protection of national security, public order, public health or morals“.
Luckily, there are boundaries
Freedom of speech and expression is, as you might have understood by now, by no means absolute. Common limitations or boundaries to freedom of speech apply, and relate to libel, slander, obscenity, pornography, sedition, incitement, fighting words, classified information, copyright violation, trade secrets, food labeling, non-disclosure agreements, the right to privacy, dignity, the right to be forgotten, public security, protection of minors, negation-ism and perjury.
Mill’s Harm principle
Justifications and an ethical framework for these boundaries include the harm principle, proposed by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, which suggests that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Otherwise said: like most freedom, the freedom of speech stop where another freedom begins.
It’s the law
In most countries freedom of speech is included in the constitution itself, or in one of the amendments or bylaws. The first amendment of the United States Constitution notoriously says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” In short, this gives every single US citizen five protected freedoms: speech, religion, press, assembly, and the right to petition the government.
So the ones that plead for freedom of speech, but condemn the right to assemble and (peacefully) protest should really do some research 😊.
In most countries, this right to freedom of speech has boundaries that follow mostly the exceptions of the ICCPR.
It’s for the government, and its institutions
The freedom of speech refrains governments, governmental institutions, and governmental agents from interfering with expression, as long as it is within the legal boundaries (= the list of exceptions), and refrains them to retaliate in any way on the communicators. Ergo: a citizen has the (human) (constitutional) right to express himself, within certain well defined boundaries, without having to fear pressure or negative impact from the government for doing so.
China jailing people for talking about the events of the Tian’anmen Square is clearly a breach of the human right to free speech…
Private terms and conditions
All this is very well, but every social media platform has a binder of small lettered terms and conditions that set out the multiple rules linked with the use of the platforms. Often, (and in the case of as well Twitter as Facebook), these terms and conditions set limits to the freedom of expression on those platforms, that are directly taken from the ICCPR list of exceptions.
You do not have to like the platform, you may vehemently disagree with its purpose, its shareholders, its set-up. You may even question its grueling impact on today’s society. But nobody forces you to use it. And… if you do, you’ll have to accept the limits as set out in its terms and conditions (assuming that those are not against the law) .
Freedom of speech does not give you a right to be amplified
Within certain boundaries, you can say whatever you want, but this constitutional and human right does not oblige third parties to amplify you. Press, platforms, etc are free to amplify what they want. You might not like that, but it is their right. In short: no private company can be forced to spread your gospel. Moreover, if you would force them, you would be jeopardizing their very own right to freedom of speech.
So yes, Twitter and Facebook have every right not to amplify an idiot. Maybe they should have exercised the right not to carry stupid, racist, misogynist, and violent messages way earlier.