Freedom of Speech =/= Speech Free from Consequences

Seriously, I’m really getting tired of people griping about how their FREEDOM OF SPEECH is being violated because people don’t like what they’re saying and say as much. Look, you are perfectly free to call a gay person a pervert. Really! But that does not mean I can’t call you out for that, or that I have to be buddy buddy with you, or that I have to endorse your hate. Heck no. And you know what? You are perfectly free to call a woman you don’t like a c***. Really! But if you do that, be ready for some serious backlash, because believe it or not, being hateful and sexist has consequences.

The weird thing is that this is one area where what I read about evangelicals and the Christian Right coincides with what I read in certain parts of the atheist blogosphere. Yes, just like Dan Cathy of Chick-fil-A thought he should be able to oppose marriage equality without facing consequences, because, you know, freedom of speech, there are also atheists out there who appear to think they should be able to use sexist slurs without facing consequences, because, you know, freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech means that the government does not censor speech. It doesn’t mean that when you say hateful things everyone around you is required to nod and smile. I mean really, the Westboro Baptists say terrible horrible things, but the government doesn’t stop them, because they have freedom of speech. Essentially everyone in this country abhors them, and many people speak out against their hate. And you know what? That does not violate their freedom of speech! Free speech does not mean being able to say anything you want to without being labeled a bigot.

Freedom of speech =/= speech free from consequences.

This isn’t that complicated. Really.

Oh, and people making comment policies, or banning people from commenting on their blogs? That doesn’t violate anyone’s freedom of speech either, because it’s not the government that is making those rules. It’s people making decisions about their own blogs. Believe it or not, no one has the right to comment on other people’s blogs. The same is true of conferences and work places. An independent entity making rules for running things on its own turf is not a violation of a person’s freedom of speech.

So you are perfectly free to call gay people perverts or women c***s. But don’t think your freedom of speech means you can do that without people condemning you for it, or without people choosing not to associate with you because of it, or, well, without consequences. Because it doesn’t.

On Orgies, Bisexuality, James Dobson, and Evangelicals
Red Town, Blue Town
On Indiana
What Kind of Atheist Parent Are You?
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Gail

    I’m not sure if you’ve seen the British tv show The Hour (set in the late 1950s), but there was one episode where they had a dialogue between a black doctor and a white supremacist on their news show. After the white supremacist ranted a bit, the black doctor said that he was happy that the white supremacist was legally allowed to speak his mind, even if he didn’t agree with him.

    It really summed up my thoughts on the matter. I’m grateful for free speech and freedom of expression, but that doesn’t mean that society can’t respond negatively. I think of it like the press; of course we all want a press free from government censorship and propaganda, but that doesn’t mean we should outlaw things like editorials and letters to the editor just because people can’t stand someone disagreeing with them.

  • Rachel Marcy (Bix)

    Yes. Thank you.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    I completely agree with this and it’s a conversation I’ve had with my boyfriend where he has realised how clueless he was to the situation of blogger women who spoke up and the hate they received as a consequence.

    Fortunately many atheists (feminist women and men) are fighting those sexist people. I, for one, am a member of secular women and we are working to try to solve part of this problem.

  • Flora

    Yes! I have no idea what makes this a difficult consequence to grasp. I had an argument a few weeks ago with someone who said that they should be be able to fat shame people that they perceived as overweight in order to make them not-fat. When I pointed out that this was bullying and could contribute to mental disorders like bulemia and anorexia, I was told that *I* was being a bully and trying to silence her. And also I was being so judgemental.

    It was the face-palmingest conversation I’ve had in months.

    • Flora

      **concept, not consequence

    • Saraquill

      I hate it when people tell me I’m bad for speaking out against appalling people.

  • Angelia Sparrow

    The remedy for bad speech is better speech.

    • Andrew G.

      That makes a nice slogan, but the evidence disagrees – speaking out against a falsehood, for example, can often increase the perception by the audience that it is true.

      • Nebuladancer

        I think this means to say something that is superior, not more eloquently argue against. For example, when the Westboro signs say “God is your enemy”, better speech would be something like “Love conquers all.” Both are positive statements in the mathematical sense, and the second does not attempt to counter, or argue against the first. It just says something that is morally/ethically/socially better than the first statement.

  • Zadi

    This is one of the best, most to-the point, and resonant things I’ve read in a long time. I will be linking to this forever, now.

    Thank you.

  • baal

    I agree that “free speech” is often touted inappropriately as a defense. I also think that fora that show a range of expression and allow for disagreement while fostering an environment for discussion are a good thing. Too much support for the ‘consequences’ side can lead to group think / echo chamber effects.

    • Libby Anne

      I also think that fora that show a range of expression and allow for disagreement while fostering an environment for discussion are a good thing.

      I agree, to a point. I think it’s important to be aware that when all holds are off and all manner of slurs are allowed, there will be those who will decide it is not worthwhile to participate because it is just too painful, and they see no reason to put themselves through that. In other words, though it might seem like it would, allowing a complete “range of expression,” as you put it, does not actually create a level playing field.

      As a sort of example, one of the most important things my therapist told me was that I could set boundaries. In other words, if my mother tried to bring up the subject of everything that happened back when I was leaving my parents and their quiverfull/Christian patriarchy beliefs, I could respond by saying “I’m not going to talk about that.” Why? For my own protection. I knew from experience that when everything from back then got brought out to rehash, the result would be intense emotional pain and even PTSD-like symptoms. What my therapist told me was that I didn’t have to put myself through that. I could refuse to put myself in a position where I knew my mother could, and would, hurt me.

      My point is simply that if you have a forum where anything goes and there are no rules, there will be women and other minorities who will opt out rather than putting themselves through that, and for good reason. “Setting boundaries,” to use my therapist’s term, is not about being a coward or being afraid your ideas don’t hold up, it’s about protecting yourself and making an informed decision about what it’s worth putting yourself through.

      So, is it important and productive to have forums that allow for disagreement? Of course! In contrast, is it important and productive to have forums that allow for slurs and other such insults and language? My answer would be no.

      • Karen

        There is a lot of 1st Amendment law that supports actual criminal penalties on speech deemed abusive or otherwise harmful. Even speech that clearly cannot be restricted because of its content may be restricted in time, place, or manner of expression. The classic example is that no one can rent a sound truck and broadcast political speeches on a residential street or invite the Boston Philharmonic to play the Hallelujah Chorus in the condo courtyard at 2 am. Congress will eject anyone who uses cuss words while speaking at a hearing. On a more practical level, if the speaker wants to actually persuade people to share her position, then she should avoid insults, cuss words, or other offensive behavior.

    • Ibis3

      Why is it that no one complains about echo chambers when we all agree that, say, setting buildings on fire is bad or teaching Creationism to schoolkids is unconscionable, but as soon as we agree that women should be treated as people, there appears a pack of deranged frothers rending their garments over the demise of free speech?

  • M

    Oh thank you so much for this.

    Another problem with claiming free speech violations when it’s not actually in jeopardy is that people become inured to those claims and then actual violations go unnoticed. It’s hard to pick the true/meaningful claims out of a thicket of hysteria. The same goes for rights violations in general- while the Christian Right has been screeching about religious freedoms [i]that are not being taken away[/i], we’ve slowly been losing Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth amendment rights (the ones about warrants, unreasonable searches and seizures, timely free and fair jury trials, right to lawyers, etc).

    • Little Magpie

      Yes. This.

  • eric

    The verbal nastiness is like nose picking. Nope, I don’t want to make it illegal. Yep, if I see you do it I’m going to try and convince you to stop. At least in polite company.
    If you respond to my request to stop by actively doing more nose-picking in front of me in order to ‘prove a point,’ this is likely to backfire. I am far more likely to think you’re acting like a juvenile than I am to be impressed with your dedication to some principle of freedom to pick.

    • Monika

      This is a great analogy. Thanks.

  • Kacy

    Westboro actually won a lawsuit regarding their constitutional rights to free speech when picketing funerals. When I hear people, (usually conservative Christians upset about the social repercussions of making homophobic remarks), complain that their free speech rights are being threatened, I tell them that until Westboro loses its right to picket and post vile things on the internet, they will be safe.

  • dawn

    I’ve been saying this for years but had been met with major attitudes about it. Thank you for saying this too.

  • Morilore

    There’s some serious “freedom is slavery” crap in the way some people abuse the concept of freedom of speech. People who think that their free speech rights are somehow violated when they get vocally criticized are basically saying that they should have the right to silence critics. That is very specifically UNfreedom of speech.

  • jose

    There can be a de facto suppression of speech. Had the internet existed back then, probably Clara Campoamor would have had her tumblr reported and closed. If the terms of service of the major communication platforms (newspapers’ letters section, local radio, youtube, wordpress, blogger, tumblr) reserve the right to publish your stuff or not beyond what permissible by law, then even though the government still doesn’t forbid you just go out to the streets and speak to random strangers, you’re effectively voiceless.

  • Custador

    It’s an American thing. Really. Constitution Worship is as unreasonable as any religion, particularly concerning the first and second amendments. The rest of the world long since realised that Can Say =/= Should Say, and came to terms with the idea that saying certain things in certain situations will get your arse kicked.

  • Eamon Knight

    The peach-freezers seem to be unaware that free speech — as a legally protected political value — has a purpose. It’s so false ideas can be refuted, bad people can be called to account, truth can be spoken to power, etc. And in order to ensure a generous space for valuable speech, we probably need to err on the side of having to put up with a fair bit of unpleasant meaningless racket from people with nothing useful to say. But let’s be clear: the haters and harassers are not brave champions of freedom — in fact, they are frequently trying to use intimidation to restrict others’ freedom — they’re just juvenile bullies screaming to hear the sound of their own voices. Their “speech” is about as useful and significant as the “speech” one finds scratched into the paint of public toilet stalls.

    • Custador

      I’d agree but for one thing: Idiots and bigots are a lot louder and more dedicated to spreading their views than most people. Hence power is skewed towards idiots and bigots in a non-representative way when speech is utterly unfettered.

  • Stephanie

    I agree with this 100%. When I have told people that I support the right of Westboro Baptist Church to speak, I have been met with some very hostile attitudes. “How can you agree with that!?” Easy, I don’t. I don’t agree with them one bit. What I do agree with is free speech, which includes my right to call them out on it.

    This conservative agrees with you!

  • Rae

    The other thing I encounter a lot is people thinking that freedom of speech guarantees that anyone else provide them a platform from which to say what they want – that a private website, or newspaper, or whatever, is not required to publish content that they find offensive or contrary to their objective.

  • Sheila Crosby

    I like the nose-picking analogy too.

    I notice that a lot (not all!) of the people yelling for FREEZE PEACH a) don’t seem to have anything to say except insults and “YOU’RE WRONG!” (with no facts or logic to support that view) b) don’t seem to do anything in support of anything except insults and c) don’t seem to believe that anybody else has the right to talk.

    Weird. I can only think that they have terribly empty lives.

  • luckyducky

    Oh!!! I have been so frustrated in the last week, not that it is a new thing, with the Rights (intentional?) misunderstanding of this and their very, very consistent pot-calling-the-kettle-black tactic of argument. I wish that teaching the following was mandatory in every high school civics class and you couldn’t pass it or graduate high school without being able to demonstrate your grasp of:

    (1) Free speech is not free of consequence.
    (2) Your freedom does not include telling other people what to do/how to live their lives. Corollary: your freedom is not violated by people doing things you don’t approve of if it doesn’t directly impact your life and it may not be even then.
    (3) “I know you are but what am I” is not a valid point to make when discussing public policy.
    (4) What a strawman argument and other common logical fallacies are and how to recognize when someone is using one.

    I got in a social media “discussion” where one person said there was nothing that would change her mind and she didn’t think there was anything that would change my mind. I said there was no way I would admit to that. I know what evidence it would take to get me to change my mind, I just don’t think it exists. Someone supplied some tangentially related study that wasn’t very good to begin with. I spent more time than it was worth reading it and then dashed off a couple of points (numbered even) as to why I didn’t think it made the point they were trying to make — making reference to study design, statistical model, and assumptions. I was, in good faith, going through the evidence they provided and, in good faith, explaining why I didn’t find it persuasive.

    Several people jumped in to say how this was proof I wouldn’t change my mind because if it was in support of my side it just didn’t count. One said she didn’t even bother to read my points because it was obvious that I was just as set as she was. No one refuted any of the points that I made in support of the study, probably because they don’t have the skills necessary to reasonable critique it, which is another issue.

    I was at the point of pulling my hair out in disbelief at how resistant to evidence, reasoned argument, and any attempt at rational decision-making they all were… and these people not only vote, they teach our children!!!! I don’t expect them to say “oh, you are absolutely right, how could we have ever doubted you!” though that would be nice but is a “well, I can see where you are coming from but you haven’t convinced me, ” too much to ask?

    • M

      Ugh, I can relate.

      I had a cousin post something ridiculous on Facebook during the presidential campaign. She’s normally fairly reasonable, so I took it apart. Then one of her friends linked the most absurd, conspiracy-laden response to me. I read it (I really shouldn’t have) and took it apart point by point. I mean, seriously, anything that ends with “The Jewish Communist bankers want to destroy the US economy” is not credible. The friend responded by saying I was obviously just an Obama shill because I sounded like I knew what I was talking about and I wouldn’t unless I’d been programmed somehow.

      My jaw just dropped and I stared at the computer for a bit before walking away. What do you say to someone so deep in their little own world?