QotD: Free Speech?

Can someone articulate what the “ideal of free speech” is?

Basically, John Scalzi wrote a response piece to Adrian Chen’s outing of Reddit moderator Violentacrez. Scalzi points out that the cry of “free speech” is misguided because the government was not involved, and the American right of free speech is a check on government authority to censor.

This led to a lot of people to argue that there is an ideal of free speech beyond the constitutional right to free speech. The problem is that, for most of western history, the ideal of free speech was to protect the individual from the power of the government. For example, John Milton’s 17th century Areopagitica, with its famous phrase that “we may as soon fall again into a gross conforming stupidity,” was directed at Parliament’s attempt to license printing.

But now we’re in a time when “free speech” is used by private citizens against other private citizens. It’s something so important that for its sake we will ignore the embarrassment and potential harassment that comes from posting pictures of underage girls without their permission. We seem to be going from a negative form of free speech, which is that government doesn’t have the authority to censor, a positive one, which is … what, exactly?

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  • Melody

    I feel like society is SUPPOSED to speak out against things. Society makes the morals. And people are outraged that groups of people are creeping on vulnerable teenage girls and thus we shame that individual into stopping.

    Either they stop or they will be judged. It is why we have certain laws regarding peeping and the age of consent. Because society demands certain things of the individuals in it.

    If I caught someone taking pervy pictures of the teenagers I mentor I would DO something about it. It is unacceptable. These children shouldn’t be sexualized.

    Private individuals aren’t silencing this man: they are shaming him. He got an interview on a news channel for god sakes. His voice is being heard. The voices we aren’t hearing are the voices of all those teenages/pre-teens whose images were exploited for the sexual pleasure of this man and others.

  • http://humanistmanifesto.wordpress.com/ Mark Russell


  • JT

    When private citizens are using the free speech argument against other private citizens, invariably it is to silence them. Violentacrez was not being silenced, he was being exposed. It was those who wished to expose him who were being told to be silent. The “ideal” of free speech doesn’t protect people from consequences of their speech.

    • DMG

      “… invariably it is to silence them”

      Thank you for this observation. Very well put! :)

  • Kodie

    We seem to be going from a negative form of free speech, which is that government doesn’t have the authority to censor, a positive one, which is … what, exactly?

    Everyone* on the internet thinks like an investigative reporter: the public has a right to know.

    *Like, a lot of people, some of whom wield that power with responsibility and some who have no boundaries whatsoever. Some people know what the difference is between exposé and gossip and some people don’t care. Like in the case where they print some pedophile’s home address, that’s not false (although often enough mistaken) and it’s not exactly private, and they’re not openly suggesting vigilantes go over there, that’s on the vigilantes, right? “The public has a right to know!” Maybe he’s not even a pedophile and that’s for the court’s to determine, but of course he is. Probably. Even the “news” has to fight for its right all the time to say true things about real people, fight for the right to have exclusivity and “break” the news, even if it’s trash. The public has a right to know that Mel Gibson is a violent misogynist bigot? Everyone has the power now, aren’t necessarily skilled at reporting, to help the truth come out and disrespect people’s wishes that they maintain control of their public truth and hide their private truth. There is tons of “gossip” about gay celebrities who themselves maintain a heterosexual persona, we “know” what anonymous backstage people have implied they are witness to, but that’s not considered being outed for some reason, people are allowed to speculate.

    Anyway, the internet tends to misuse “free speech,” as when a person’s opinion in a forum is just unwanted, like kicking a bad friend out of a group of friends and not wanting to associate with them. Nobody asked you to come to this party, even if the doors are left open. Some sites have a more liberal attitude, while others censor dissenting agreements, and sites like reddit let readers vote and see other readers’ scores within the community.

    The other side of it is more of a “free press” angle, where people who have whatever power, small or large, to expose the “truth,” which isn’t always a bad thing. We want to know the truth about our presidential candidates aside from just what they want to tell us, and especially if they are trying very hard to keep it a secret and it’s pertinent toward their character.

    The medium lends itself to a “free press” attitude with regard to outing people who didn’t want to be outed. I didn’t follow the article, and my next comment is not relevant to it in specific, but if one poster is bigoted toward gay people and abusive in the community, wouldn’t this be pertinent information if someone knew that he was actually gay? Otherwise, it’s mean-spirited gossip trying to hurt someone. The difference if B says “A is gay” or “A is gay”, depending on the circumstances, people do have a right to know (if A is also a hypocritical bigot) and people don’t really have a right to know (if A didn’t want them to know and/or B imagines that exposing A’s secret will lower everyone’s opinion of A), even if it is the truth, but it’s too late to un-say it.

  • kessy_athena

    My feeling is that a lot of the problems we have with free speech and a lot of other issues is that we’re used to thinking of government and societal power as being more or less synonymous. Human societies have always had power structures, ever since the days of hunter gatherer tribes and their chieftains. Government evolved as a natural extension of that. In the past, there was a continuum of authority from parents to community elders to kings and so on. Feudalism made this explicit, as each authority figure owed fealty to the next person up the chain just as those below them on the chain owed them fealty.

    This has changed recently (in historical terms) with the advent of constitutional government. Ironically, you could almost say that the democratic ideal of limited government has been too successful for its own good. We have sectioned off government as a distinct and separate aspect of society with strong limits and constraints on its behavior. While that’s a good thing, it has left something of a power vacuum in some sections of society. As they say, nature abhors a vacuum. We can’t simply kick authority out of parts of our lives. And some of the more egregious behavior we see online is a good example of why that wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing, even if we could.

    I think we need to apply the hard lessons we’ve learned in government to other sorts of societal power. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Secrecy invites abuse, as does a lack of accountability. Checks and balances and division of powers is the way to go. We need authority, and we need authority to be held accountable for its actions.

    I’ve never been to Reddit and I’ve never encountered Violentacrez, so I’m reluctant to pass judgement on that particular situation from a distance. I’ve heard this person described as one of the internet’s biggest trolls, and my opinion is that trolling is obnoxious, but essentially harmless. I have no problem with this person being outed per se – if you wouldn’t want your name attached to something you say, should you really be saying it in the first place? The best answer to bad speech is good speech, and it’s entirely appropriate to answer a troll with the community collectively saying, “Hey, that’s not okay.” What does concern me about this case is that I understand Violentacrez has lost their job because of being outed. Peer pressure and shaming in response to trolling is one thing, taking away a person’s livelihood is another.

  • Cunning Pam

    What does concern me about this case is that I understand Violentacrez has lost their job because of being outed. Peer pressure and shaming in response to trolling is one thing, taking away a person’s livelihood is another.
    The only person who caused Michael Brutsch (Violentacrez) to lose his job was…Michael Brutsch. No one held a gun to his head and made him create and moderate the subreddits he did or post the things he did on the net. No one told him that r/jailbait was a good idea. No one made him play to his fanbois and post disgusting, dehumanizing, cruel and insensitive crap all for some sort of sick fame rush. No, Michael Brutsch chose to do all those things. It doesn’t seem that he did anything illegal, but neither was it illegal to mention his real name and RL information. If his employer doesn’t want to be known as employing a skeezy fame addict who gets his jollies by upsetting people and overseeing the posting of photos taken and posted without consent for the benefit of emotionally stunted men-children’s masturbatory fantasies, well, that’s not illegal as well.

    Brutsch dug his own hole. Just because you’re allowed to act like a jerk doesn’t mean you’re immune to the repercussions of those actions.

    • kessy_athena

      I agree completely that this person is 100% responsible for his actions, and probably deserves some pretty severe consequences. My question is whether losing his job is an appropriate consequence for what he did, and even if it is, should that consequence be applied in a way that has no due process and no possibility of appeal? If the business owning class can arbitrarily deprive this person of employment – whether he deserves it or not – what’s to stop them from doing the same thing to anyone else they don’t like for whatever reason? If they can do it to him, they’ll do it to others.

      • LeftWingFox

        In North American culture, businesses may hire and fire at will. To the extent that it harms society as a whole (i.e. through discriminatory practices) we restrict it through legal means. It can be argued that his actions tarnished the reputation of the company by association.

        So I pose a variation of that question: Given that businesses already have this right, what should be restricted specifically to protect workers from that kind of abuse in a way that does not bring harm to businesses in being unable to eliminate harmful employees? Alternately, what other system could we put in place that would reduce or eliminate this at a fundamental level (I.e. a robust welfare state)

        • kessy_athena

          Well, in my opinion, American business culture is sick, twisted, and deeply pathological, but that’s another discussion entirely. I do have a serious problem with calling the ability of business to fire arbitrarily a right. As they say, my right to swing my arm ends at the tip of your nose. Firing, by its nature, is inherently deeply affecting other people, and therefore cannot really be considered a right. If you want practical suggestions, the simplest thing would be a decent wrongful firing law that would let employees take the issue to the civil courts. I happen to think something along the lines of an arbitration board for such disputes would work better, but I’m no expert.

    • Kodie

      So an employer has the right not to hire people who have unlikeable qualities, but how much of a right does a company have to know everything their employees do when they’re not on the clock? Of course companies don’t want to hire bad people in the first place, and maybe they should fire someone depending on how bad who they really are is once it’s revealed to them, but there’s a massive gray area too. Is making someone’s private “online” persona public so they can be fired, do people really think that’s a good thing to do? If someone is a pedophile working in a school, someone ought to know, right? But what if you just don’t like the person and it’s you who have jealousy or vengeance, and since you have the power of revealing less than ideal qualities to their employer so they get fired so you can get some sick sense of Justice…. I mean, there is more than one way to think of the power and the consequences of having that power, to mess with human beings’ lives that don’t concern you. Let’s say the thing you don’t like about a person is they had an abortion so you thought you might let their employer know; or how employers want people’s facebook passwords before they hire someone so they can really check them out and all their drunk-faced poses from college. Gotta have some balance. Maybe this guy was a total douche who had it coming eventually, but on the other hand, NARC. You want to be “that guy”? Get the fuck out of other people’s business, usually a good rule of thumb.

  • Cunning Pam

    Sorry, quote fail, those first two sentences in my previous post were by kessy_athena just above.

  • Paul

    The underlying premise, to my understanding, was to protect unpopular speech. Despite the right, government has always opposed and tried to limit it and fortunately, when it is tries it most often fails. Inoffensive speech requires no protection. And if a citizen knows about someone exploiting kids and cannot get the police to pay attention, making it public is a good use of that right. If you are recklessly or maliciously using speech to either lie about someone or to cause them harm, there are legal remedies where the free speech right is weighed against unreasonably damaging slander.

    Individuals are relatively powerless against government and when they uncover wrong doing it also requires them to make that wrong doing public in order to have any chance at reversing the problem. The same can be true against relatively powerful individuals who can use power or wealth to hide their deeds.

    This site is a wonderful example of a positive use of free speech. Growing up and coming to terms with atheism in the deeply religious part of the south. Differing religions may find grudging acceptance but atheism was just a forbidden subject. As I started college it was a little more acceptable, at least in hushed tones far from the ears of the Baptist Student Union. The internet is a marvelous tool for folks to find others of like minds.

  • FO

    Free Speech: the free circulation of information that is not private to the individual.
    Defining what is “private” is far trickier however.

  • Don Gwinn

    The ideal of free speech, in my conception, is simply Voltaire’s big idea that “freedom of speech” applies to everybody equally, and I don’t reserve the right for myself while refusing to defend it for you.

    Where these people are getting twisted is when they introduce the idea–which would have shocked Voltaire–that you have the right to speak freely, AND to decide whether or how others may react to your speech. You have the right to speak; I have the right to disagree, to rebut your argument, to point out the dangers of what you are saying and doing, to avoid your company, to advise others to shun you, to reveal your identity . . . . . otherwise, all value judgments aside, ViolentAcrez would have “freedom of speech” only by denying it to everyone who disagreed with him. That can’t make any sense, much less be the ideal.

  • Custador

    On the Violenacrez issue, my stance is pretty clear cut: If he defines posting pictures of dead, underage girls in bikinis (I shit you not, he actually did this) as “free speech” and wants to argue that his right to do so should be protected, then he has absolutely no right to object to Adrian Chen posts his real name publicly. How is that less invasive than a sexually explicit image of a dead girl? You live by the sword, you die by the sword. People defending him need to quit their fucking hypocrisy.

    Now, with that said: I do not want my dox posted here. But that’s not the same thing – Because what we do here does not invade anybody else’s privacy. We do not post things that should remain private. We do not put voyeurism and salacious noseyness above people’s right to a private life. Violentacrez does.

    Honestly, I sincerely hope that the next thing to happen to Violentacrez is that the FBI seize his computers.

    • Sunny Day

      That would be a very real danger if people were submitting pics to him.

      Ethically I think he would have been bound to report any porn to the authorities. If he was getting alot of it, it should have been a giant cluebat that what he was doing wasn’t worth the hassle.

      If it was me, I’d carefully transfer the files I need to a fresh out of the box HD.
      Pound the old one into an L shape with a hammer and toss it in the trash at a park.
      Then retain legal counsel just in case.

      • Custador

        I do think the debate this has sparked is important, I’ll give the man that. The thing of it is, “free speech” has attracted such a mythic, untouchable status (particularly in the US) that nobody really stops and wonders what the definition of the phrase is. Does “free speech” mean the freedom to express yourself however you like, with any message you like, in any medium you like? I don’t think it does. I think “free speech” is just shorthand for “the government will not silence dissent”. I think that hugely important ideal has been twistes and distorted into something despicable. What really scares me is that our respective governments DO oppress disenting voices, and nobody bats an eyelid. Publicly name a man who posts naked teenage corpses to the web, and half of Reddit are up in arms over it. Idiots. I would aegue that free speech should in any event only be inviolable when the person speaking does so with their own voice, under their real identity. Because honestly, anonymously posting jailbait pictures is not exercising free speech.

  • Jim Charlotte

    Both the reporter and the Reddit moderator were exercising their free speech. People have gotten such a misconception free speech. As mentioned before, free speech is only an issue when a government is impeding your speech. Free speech also does not mean you are free from repercussions, backlash and boycotts as a result of your speech. You’re also not entitled to completely anonymous speech, through privacy versus government intrusion is whole other argument.