Freedom Of Speech: It’s Both Complicated and Simple

From xkcd:

With what’s happening worldwide it’s not surprising that Freedom of Speech is being debated again here in New Zealand.  First Dame Susan Devoy calls for new Hate Speech legislation and then a diverse (and I mean diverse) group of New Zealanders pen a letter against that concept especially in Universities.

This is something I have often thought about which is both complex and simple. So for this post first up some background information.

For most of my adult life I have been fairly fundamentalist free speech advocate very much in line with the quote that wasn’t actually Voltaire’s but many people attribute to him. “I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

In the New Zealand context we don’t have a constitution however in our Bill of Rights we have the following: “14: Freedom of expression. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.”

That doesn’t however extend to protection from defamation or the advocating for a crime or violence.

I work at a University myself in libraries and librarians can be quite anti censorship and in Universities we often say one of our key roles is  “as critic and conscience of society”.

So the concept of Freedom of Speech is and has been important to me. Recently however I have become concerned with the ease with which some folks use the concept to advocate fairly hateful speech. I have also become concerned with the growing trend to ban speakers from Campuses.

Where I am at in my thinking and where I think this fits in the complicated/simple spectrum is this:

  • Freedom of speech is about the government no censoring views (simple)
  • Freedom of speech doesn’t mean that anybody owes you a platform to express your views (Simple)
  • Universities should safe guard the ability for people to express there views as a special place in society. (Complicated)
  • Universities need to balance that against the ability for people to learn and study in safety. (Complicated)
  • Trigger warning are good, especially in Universities. They are not about censorship just giving warning that the topic under discussion might cause people trauma if they are unprepared (Should be simple)
  • Freedom of speech also extends to people responding to your views and calling you out if it’s a shitty view (simple).
  • Harmful speech but not illegal speech is very difficult to police and may be obvious to some people and not to others (very complicated)

Essentially I am still very firmly a believer in Free Speech – I just have concerns that I am not sure how to address. I think I mostly support Professor Moon with some unquiet reservations.

As an example I am very firmly pro-vaccination and think the anti-vax group are cranks and wrong. I think that the ant-vax  propaganda is dangerous to public health and should generally not be given public space. However I do see that there is a place for it to be reviewed in Universities and if a group of people want to view a film they should be allowed to.  Also if folks want to protest that film that should be fine to.  It’s complicated.

In summary – Freedom of Speech should be simple and good but is complicated.

An update:

  • Companies who provide platforms are not beholden or owing in providing said platforms to just anyone and have a duty of care to ensure around safety of their readers. They should not be required to provide a comments system but if they do should have a series of rules that are easily understandable with clear consequences.