Free Speech and the Internet

Over the past several years, there has been an increase in hostility on the internet. This is not news. The internet both aids in fueling that hostility and seems to discourage anything more than passive attempts to redirect that hostility. One of the things that is brought up in defense of that aggressiveness is ‘MY FREE SPEECH!’ So with that, I think it’s important a few things are made clear.

First and foremost, there is no ‘free speech’ on the internet. No, really. The majority of websites are privately held property. While they’re required to meet certain standards if they allow comments (no child pornography, etc), you are essentially walking into someone’s living room/office/private space and saying what you think. And in the same way that you can be asked to leave someone’s home for spewing obnoxious hateful opinions, you can be asked to leave someone’s website for the same reason, free speech notwithstanding.

Second: WTF is protected free speech anyway? Yes, I probably should have started with that. It’s probably easier to point out what Free Speech is not. The Brandenberg decision stated that even speech which advocates violence can be considered ‘free speech.’ Which is fine as far as it goes, but it has also been refined. Although different scholars view unprotected speech in different ways, there are basically nine categories:

  • Obscenity
  • Fighting words
  • Defamation (including libel and slander)
  • Child pornography
  • Perjury
  • Blackmail
  • Incitement to imminent lawless action
  • True threats
  • Solicitations to commit crimes

Some experts also would add treason, if committed verbally, to that list. Plagiarism of copyrighted material is also not protected. That’s essentially it. So along comes this thing called the internet, and free speech turns into this absurdist parody of what it once was. One of the best articles I’ve found describing the phenomenon is this one from the National Review, of all places:

As an argument, the notion that my support for free markets compels me to stay silent when launches one of its periodic shame campaigns isn’t really worth my time. But it does point to a dangerous trend: Increasingly, Americans are using their right to free speech to destroy free speech. Rather than seeking to inform, they intimidate. Rather than seeking to persuade, they publicly shame.


Lest anyone think the radical Left has cornered the market on the use of free speech to suppress free speech, the alt-right is raising trolling to an obscene art form, bombarding opponents with the most vile forms of constitutionally protected expression imaginable. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen images of my youngest daughter in a gas chamber — with Donald Trump pushing the button — simply because I have publicly opposed Trump. Dozens of images of dead or dying African-Americans were put on the comment board of my wife’s blog because she publicly opposes Trump, as well. Free speech? Sure, but it is, again, impossible to argue that these actions are designed to do anything other than silence and intimidate political opponents.

It seems odd, given the widespread trolling on social media, to assert that America’s culture of free speech is under threat, but the cumulative effect of shame campaigns and intimidation strategies is that millions of people simply flee the field, leaving the battle to the most extreme voices or to those people who’ve slowly developed the thick skins necessary to maintain a public presence. If most people believe that the price of engaging in the world of ideas is direct attacks on their children — or the potential loss of a job they love — then they’ll simply bow out.

There seems to be a growing trend of screaming past each other in the futile hope of ‘winning on the internet.’ I hope that eventually, we’ll find ways of going back to having conversations with each other. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts.

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