Conservative commentators and provocateurs love to insist on ‘free speech’ when they are accused of saying hateful and offensive things, rather than defending the indefensible things that they are invariably claiming the right to say.
An easy response is to point out that free speech laws do not guarantee the right to speak in whatever venue one likes, nor to speak without being opposed. Pointing out the limits of the first amendment in this way is important, but it does not settle the matter because non-interference from the government is not really enough to ensure free speech.
Many other factors can and do inhibit freedom of expression. Social media companies censor speech on their highly important platforms, and they either do so or stop short of doing so in ways that seem to make people of every political orientation uneasy at some time or other. Mass media outlets exercise editorial control over their content, rejecting what does not fit their editorial mandate or meet their quality standards. Academic journals submit what they would publish to peer-review, scrutinising it according to a discipline’s norms. Apart from all of these deliberate choices to promote some speech and limit others, social disapproval (as well as the fear of social disapproval) exerts a bemoaned ‘chilling effect’ as we learn to watch our tongues and avoid saying things that would embarrass us.
Freedom of expression is inhibited wherever there is expression, but while expression’s inhibition is never benign, it is not purely malignant either—some combination of restrictions and inhibitions are involved in making any of our institutions possible. Every institution—government, press, universities, and social organisations—involves limits on what can be said, by whom, and in what context.
It is crucial, then, to be careful when ideas and voices are left out, even when their exclusion is not the result of any legal restriction. Because every venue is subject to some restrictions, we should recognise that practically speaking expression is not absolutely free. This means that defending the ideal of free speech should involve being careful about what prohibitions are imposed and how they are imposed. There is even more reason to be vigilant when we consider that the platforms for speech are not all of equal prestige or popular appeal. Much like the real marketplace, the marketplace of ideas tends to be monopolised, in this case both by dominant firms and by dominant discourses. Being more careful about the limits to free speech which inevitably accompany speech is more important than insisting on the absoluteness of free speech as an abstract right.
John Stuart Mill, the canonised defender of liberty in general, and of free speech in particular, did not distinguish between the censorship of the state and the censorship of the people, because whether it is the government or some other group preventing you from speaking, it is the fact that your speech is not free that matters. This is why progressive insistence that the law only forbids the censorship of speech by the government itself often rings hollow—if your speech is being abridged it probably doesn’t matter much to you who is doing the abridging, and by what authority.
It does make a crucial difference to the abridging party, however. Only the government can permit free speech without having to endorse it. For any other institution, on the other hand, there is no difference between permission and some form (perhaps minimal) of endorsement. Because every other institution is selective about what can be said under its auspices, its choice of an idea is to designate it as, while not necessarily true, important and appropriate to the aims of the institution.
When an academic article is published by a peer reviewed journal, the journal is endorsing its methods and its importance. When a newspaper publishes an editorial it often includes a disclaimer noting that the views are the author’s own and not shared by the newspaper. Nevertheless, the editorial choice to publish is still a sort of endorsement—it is an implicit endorsement of those views; not as true, but as worthy of consideration and in line with its mandate. Even when a social media platform allows a post to be shared it is exercising its editorial authority, however reluctantly.
The alternative to no-platforming, then, is not to remain neutral, it is platforming. To assert one person’s right not to be no-platformed, if such a right existed, would be to curb another person’s right not to platform. This means that there cannot be any coherent guarantee of freedom of speech beyond the non-interference of the government. To assert a positive right to speak and have one’s speech disseminated would rob others of their own right to speak.
A similar incoherence would belong to the kind of guarantee of uncontested free speech that provocateurs who complain of censorship demonstrate that they really want. There cannot be any right to speak and be heard without opposition, even loud and obstructing opposition, without robbing others of their own right to speak.
We should not pretend, however, that there is no harm done whenever someone gets ‘no-platformed’, protested, or ‘ratioed’. There is a cost to the individual and to society. Mill, and Baruch Spinoza before him, insisted on the priority of a freedom of speech because it is ‘practically inseparable’ from a freedom of thought, and because to prohibit an idea is to deprive humanity of its possibly as yet unrecognised benefit, as well as of the advantage of opposing it.
However, in recognising the harm of not being heard, we should not pretend that this harm is avoidable—as long as there are ideas that are offensive, not up to relevant standards, or just uninteresting, there cannot be any right to speak and be heard. Not only that, if there is any benefit to speech, as those who advocate freedom of speech must believe there is, there must be a benefit to speaking up against those whose speech is offensive or wrong.