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Censorship or social responsibility?

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The matter of free speech is one the great issues of our time, and it has been troubling me of late. On the surface, I am adamantly against censorship of any kind, and I believe everyone should be able to voice their beliefs and vision without fear of ridicule or ostracism. Yet more and more I see people who are flagrantly abusing the right of free speech to spew unjustified hatred and voice opinions so absurd and offensive that it is impossible to engage with them in anything resembling a civilized manner. My convictions and the consequences of those principles being universally applied are in conflict, and I feel morally compelled to resolve this dilemma to the best of my ability.

“Free speech” has unfortunately become a loaded term in recent years. The most vocal defenders of “free speech” appear to be the most egregious abusers of that right. Deep down, these sorts of people are not so much anti-censorship as simply wanting to be able to say offensive things without being shunned or called out for it, as if absolute freedom of expression could or would prevent that. It is completely missing the point and damages the position of genuine anti-censorship activists. Freedom of expression is an admirable principle, but not everything people have to say is worth hearing or allowing to be heard.

I have the right to voice my opinions. I have the right to shout them from the rooftops. Of course, if I did that in the middle of my housing complex at three in the morning, I could be charged for disturbing the peace, because other people have the right to sleep.

I have a right to say what I think about people I dislike. However, if I were to spread lies and rumours, I could be sued for slander, because other people have a right to not have their career and relationships ruined by false allegations.

So, you see, even now we have restrictions on free speech, even in Canada and the United States where freedom of expression is supposedly sacrosanct. Here we find the crux of my position: one’s own rights end where another’s begin. My right to free speech doesn’t give me the right to spread damaging lies or harass people in their own homes. I would also bring up another of the human rights held dear in the English-speaking world: freedom of association. This entails not only the freedom to associate, but also the freedom to not associate. Nobody would want to be around people who spew insults at them and disturb them with loud, offensive speech. Unfortunately, it is not always as simple as avoiding the places where these people congregate. Our needs and responsibilities often give us no choice but to venture into the public sphere. On these occasions, we still deserve protection from verbal assault. Therefore, I would argue that laws against hate speech are just as valid as those against slander or disturbing the peace.

When it comes to the private arena, those in control have more discretion in policing what forms of expression are allowed in that place. For example, Tumblr recently tightened their rules on what can be shown on their site, mostly relating to certain depictions of nudity. I do not agree with these new changes, and I view them as unnecessary censorship. However, since Tumblr is a private organization, and their space is easily avoided or substituted by anyone, they have the right to pick and choose what sorts of expression they will allow. Those who disagree can and will go elsewhere. Tumblr and its managers also have the right of free association and of having their peace undisturbed.

The right of free speech that this nation, and others like it, was founded upon assumes that right will be used in good faith. Not content with merely trusting to the good in human nature, laws were put in place from the beginning to rein in abuses of that right. A functioning society depends on people willingly or unwillingly putting limitations on what they will publicly say or write. This is the compromise we must all make in order to be able to live with each other. Forms of expression intended to share visions or stimulate debate are worthy of protection, and they should be. Words, sounds, and images intended only to attack, demean, or irritate are not.

Image: wiredforlego/Flickr

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