Freedom of speech is a fundamental democratic right and a bedrock principle of enlightened society, but it has its limitations. Not only are there legal restrictions to free speech, such as laws against defamation and incitement to violence; there are also social and psychological barriers, including the pressures from cancel culture, which encourage self-censorship. This is a problem because a right not exercised is a right easily lost.
In the Weimar Republic (1919–1933), all Germans had the right to freedom of expression, but many were scared to speak out against the emerging Nazi movement due to the intimidating presence of Nazi supporters on the streets. This not only had a chilling effect on free speech, but also caused the Nazi movement to appear larger than it actually was. Potential critics felt that they had to assume that their neighbours or co-workers might be Nazi sympathizers. Thus, Hitler’s thugs were able to control public discourse well before they were able to take the reins of government. Once in power, they quashed free speech completely.
Today, Germany has strict laws against any speech that denies or downplays the crimes of the Third Reich or expresses pro-Nazi sympathies. The proffered rationale is that these laws protect German democracy from fascism. However, a government that claims to be liberal loses credibility when it undermines free speech—a fundamental liberal principle—by criminalizing objectionable views. Such restrictions may pose a more serious threat to liberal democracy than the expression of neo-Nazi views—particularly since neo-Nazis are few in number and often find ways to circumnavigate these laws.
Clear-cut laws against engaging in National Socialist activities make a great deal more sense than hate speech laws. Laws should be specific and objective—and hate speech laws are unavoidably vague and subjective. In the UK, legislation prohibiting hateful speech has led to absurdities such as police investigations into non-crime hate incidents based on the false claim that “being offensive is an offence.” What counts as hate speech also tends to be defined through an ideologically biased lens. For example, in 2019 a British woman was arrested for misgendering a trans person on Twitter, a charge that only makes sense in the context of transgender ideology.
Nor should we let Big Tech determine the limits of free speech. Though the internet is the greatest information transfer invention since the Gutenberg press, monopolistic private companies that control online platforms have increasingly intervened in recent years to regulate public discourse and opinion. While some argue that these companies are acting well within their rights when they adopt policies that limit speech on their platforms, others criticise such policies, viewing them as a threat to freedom of speech due to the overwhelming power and influence that these companies wield in society today. The rationale behind most online censorship policies appears to be that certain groups and individuals require protection from potentially hurtful speech. This, we are assured, does not constitute a free speech violation.
However, freedom of speech does not imply freedom from speech. Hurt sensibilities are not a sufficient justification for censorship. On the contrary, suppression of controversial speech inhibits intellectual progress. As Jordan Peterson has argued, “in order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive.” And, as Nobel laureate Milton Friedman put it in a 1993 interview, “You don’t talk about the things you agree about; what gets into the press, what’s newsworthy, are the disagreements and not the agreements. And where are the disagreements? On those parts of the discipline that are least well developed, that you know least about.”
According to Friedman, it is not only freedom to speak that is important, “but freedom to listen.” And freedom to listen is dependent on freedom of speech. For example, “If a professor says something in a course that other people don’t like, they disrupt the course, so that nobody can listen to him.” Friedman particularly condemned “intolerance for speech that isn’t politically correct.” He considered politically correct speech to be “a disgraceful term,” on the grounds that “correct speech ought to be speech that expresses what a person believes.”
Friedman did not believe that free speech “ought to be costless.” He notes, “If you’re going to say unpopular things, and you’re going to become unpopular as a result, that’s going to impose a cost.” But, he adds, “there ought to be no, so to speak, artificial cost or artificial limitation.” No serious free speech advocate would argue that freedom of speech implies freedom from consequences. Yet those free speech advocates who criticise cancel culture are often accused of drawing this implication—on the grounds that they are seeking to protect people from the consequences of their speech. What those critics miss, however, is that cancel culture is precisely the kind of speech restriction that imposes what Friedman calls “artificial costs and limitations”: it imposes artificial limitations by being ideologically biased, and it imposes artificial costs by using coercion to stamp out dissent.
Cancel culture therefore fits Herbert Marcuse’s concept of repressive tolerance. Marcuse calls for “the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc.” Those who participate in cancel culture ignore the caveat that Karl Popper articulates in his famous paradox of tolerance. The paradox is that, in order to maintain a tolerant society, we must not tolerate the intolerant. The caveat is that, “as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise.” While Marcuse’s approach is, in essence, totalitarian, Popper’s approach is geared towards safeguarding liberal democracy.
Cancel culture has not yet pushed us to the brink of totalitarianism. We do not live in Weimar Germany: modern western democracies are much more robust. But it would be negligent to ignore the parallels: today’s enemies of free speech, too, use intimidation tactics. Cancel culture enables them to make credible threats against anyone who dares to challenge the purported consensus. These threats are made even more credible by the presence of violent activists who strategically wreak havoc to force acquiescence to their political demands. (It is ironic that people who engage in these coercive practices compare opponents of such practices to Nazis.) Unsurprisingly, then, many people today feel a pressure to self-censor.
The Covid-19 pandemic has increased isolation and amplified the echo chamber effect of social media bubbles. This has led to increased polarisation, and has taken a toll on independent thought and nuanced discourse—which may partly explain why some people have recently appeared confused as to the meaning of free speech. For example, many who oppose stay-at-home orders and mask mandates have mistakenly characterised any disagreement with their views as an infringement of their free speech rights. While certain liberties have been curtailed to reduce the spread of the virus, the right to free speech is not one of them.
The coronavirus crisis has, however, raised questions about how to define the limits of free speech, particularly in the context of efforts to control a pandemic. For instance, speech that incites imminent violence has long been subject to prohibition. Should that principle be extended to prohibit speech that can reasonably be described as inciting reckless behaviour that endangers public health—though arguably not imminently? Candace Owens tweeted “Don’t wear a mask” to her 2.6 million followers. Should this speech be prohibited—on the grounds that it causes a public health risk? Such censorship may be justified as promoting public health, while being unwise from the standpoint of preserving democratic liberties. Special cases like this demonstrate that, while freedom of speech is a fundamental democratic right, it may involve trade-offs.
The right to free speech is designed to facilitate gradual social progress through open debate. Radical progressives, who tend to favour the faster route of social revolution, thus often dismiss free speech as an ineffective tool. For example, the anarchist authors of Contradictionary define freedom of speech as “a device for conditioning people to speaking without acting.” This definition grossly underestimates the liberating power of speech. As Jonathan Zimmerman points out, “Speech, over time, has been a weapon of the powerless.”
The right to freedom of speech has its limitations, but we are fortunate to have it, considering the number of times and places in which it has been contested, restricted and denied. It is therefore important that we keep testing its limits and unapologetically exercise our right to free speech, lest we let it slip away.