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Free speech and its limits

Free speech has its limits. We need to work out what they should be.


Freedom of speech is venerated by us as an essential right within a thriving community. Great Western thinkers like Milton, Voltaire and Mill’s have provided defence for it. The First Amendment of the US Constitution provides a legal framework protecting free speech - we know it's important.


However, everything, even free speech, has its limits. There are limits within law about what we can and cannot say, and I for one, am extremely concerned about the ability for bad actors exploiting free speech to influence us with psychological targeting through social media.


Today’s post goes through what free speech is, why we need it, some recent free speech issues, the downsides of free speech and abuse of free speech.


What is free speech.


Freedom of speech or expression is the right to express opinions and ideas. In free societies we can do this without fear of breaking the law, being censored, being attacked by a mob, being economically penalised or being ostracised.

We are rightly proud in Western countries to have a lot of freedom of expression and there are very few things that people can be legally prevented from saying. It is however, more challenging though to stop people attacking others for their views. We would be naïve to think that free speech is something everyone accepts. Some topics might be considered “beyond debate”, and there have been many examples of people being 'cancelled' for the expression of their views (e.g. J K Rowling).  


Why do we need free speech?


Free speech allows a competition of ideas. We can weight up different answers to a society’s questions and allows ideas to be measured on their merits. Societies have moved on from now discredited cultural practices through gentle shifts in ideas. Examples are female genital mutilation and child marriages. Free speech helps us discover truths too. We are constantly reinterpreting things, whether archaeological finds or scientific data. An ability to reconsider the evidence helps us advance new theories and gives us a better understanding of the world.


Importantly this year is “the year of the election”. Free speech is essential for a functional democracy. The discussion of ideas leads to a better-informed electorate. Well-informed electorates decide better.


Recent issues around the freedom of speech

The downside is that real freedom of speech is uncomfortable. We need to offer others the right to disagree with our views and state opposite opinions. We need to face truths which may conflict with the stories we tell ourselves and we need to hear things that go against our religious, cultural, or political beliefs.


There have been several issues where the effective expression of the freedom of speech has come under challenge:

  1. Press freedom laws across the world have been tools by governments who wish to pressure the editorial bias. Countries like India (161/180) and China (179/180) are regularly considered some of the least free presses in the world according to the World Free Press Index amongst economically powerful countries. Tactics like revoking licences, arresting journalists, financial pressure and direct editorial coercion are employed.

  2. Artistic expression: The life of Brian a satire on Brian whose life resembles that of Jesus was banned in the UK in 1979. Salman Rushdie had a fatwa issued for his killing for writing the book the Satanic verses whose character Mahmoud was said to be an irreverent depiction of the prophet Mohammed.

  3. World conflicts: Whatever the conflict there has tended to be a feeling that views were stifled in certain places. Most recently during the Israel/Gaza war, people have felt that expressing a view in defence of Israel’s actions has been silenced on university campuses, whereas showing concern about the lack of protection for civilians, journalist and aid workers has been silenced in the conservative media.


Where can free speech have negative societal consequences?

The no limits free speech proponents run into challenges though. What if free speech:

  • Incites violence

  • Targets groups based on age, gender, sexual orientation, location, ethnicity, race, or religion.

  • Bullies and harasses people with certain views to silence them.


Many of the most open countries have made the above illegal. This is probably because hate campaigns and peddling prejudices is not the competition of ideas but directed towards people themselves.


This creates some real challenges. If for example, people from North India are thought more likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease because of cultural practices like unhealthy diets or abuse of alcohol, is it ok to voice this opinion? Another example is that many Christian groups in the UK and US have felt conflicted on being able to express their interpretation of the biblical view on gender and sexuality for fear that it may be interpreted as denying the rights of people who do not fit into that.


Ultimately we as a society need to decide where we draw the line. However the point is there are always limits on free speech.


Bad faith use of free speech


When people defend free speech, it is normally thought as a way for people to challenge the powerful, elites, the majority, and keepers of tradition. This rests on the assumption that vested interests, traditions and dogma are not openly debated and need to be up for discussion. But we are faced with a new challenge.


What if rather than intending to challenge and seek the truth, some people intend to distract and mislead? Misinformation can make waves and change the course of elections. This is a hard thing to guard against because misinforming can be done through systems that tap into our psychology.


Misinformation is already illegal where it comes to selling a product (advertising, description of goods, services, and securities) or making baseless accusations against people. Weirdly it is not illegal in the world of politics? Why on Earth would it not be?


We see misinformation in politics all too much:

  • Repeated lies (amplified by having people tell it in different ways from seemingly independent people)

  • Deliberate false stories planted in friendly papers.

  • Quoting of incorrect facts

  • Drowning out of one side of the story.

  • Discrediting the opposition’s motives, labelling them as evil or stupid.


The sad truth - misinformation is VERY effective particularly when people are not thinking critically which is most of the people, most of the time.

Low quality debate leads to a certain resignation that “all sides are lying but I trust my guys more”. I believe we are being driven to less real and effective debate through an arms race on misinformation.


Join me next week to discuss “why tech chose misinformation”. Sign up to the subscription list on Blog | Deciders ( Follow me on twitter: @Decidersblog.


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