Free Speech as an Action, not a Right: A Rebuttal

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This article is framed as a response in reference to the following from ABC Life contributor Dr. Matt Beard. The opinions contained within are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the Liberalist International Association as a whole.


Dr. Beard.

Respectfully, I must dissent to your insinuation that speech be viewed as an action, and not a right. I would hope a doctor of ethics would not be so short-sighted so as to fail to understand the value of free expression within society, but evidently it behooves me, someone of much lower standing, to express what I should think to be an incredibly obvious opinion for someone who has even the most remote understanding of moral philosophy and human psychology.

Firstly, that one of your chief complaints seems to be that viewing freedom of speech as a right insinuates one must “have to go into bat for a lot of dickheads saying awful things.“ says more about the fabric of your moral character, or lack thereof, than it does anything in particular about why a right is a right, of which I note you fail to even begin to make the case for why speech IS enshrined as a right. Of course one must defend objectionable speech, because no one ever censors what is considered acceptable. The problem is that views on what is objectionable change over time, and so too then, if you allow this sort of censorship, will the threshold of what is acceptable, as it already clearly is changing.

You present this position of preserving the right to free speech wholly in the negative, as “not useful”, as though you are arguing for some utilitarian standard in regards to speech and speech alone. If you were approaching the idea of rights honestly or thoughtfully, you would already understand that rights in and of themselves are a fundamentally utilitarian concept conceived out of empirical observation. They do not need further utilitarian constraints put upon their conception as ideas when the very idea of natural rights already have constraints, chiefly those being the rights of others.

Of course, your framing of speech as an action, and not a right, is beneficial to your position, in so far as you state that in the scope of speech, “we have a responsibility to perform [speech] carefully, wisely and responsibly. That means we take consideration of the effects of our action on other people, the importance of what we have to say and the context in which we're saying it.” This positions you as a responsible character, providing the tough moral duty of ensuring that everyone is responsible about their speech. What you fail to address is who arbitrates any of this, and what measure do we have to keep that arbitration in check?

In the realm of viewing speech as a right, that does not mean that it is exempt in any form from the potential harms it causes; this is where Locke’s fundamental argument regarding natural rights resides. If speech were to cause material harm to a person, there is a legal justification for that harm to be remunerated through law, as that person’s rights have been violated. This is the very idea of having right to one’s own self, to one’s property, and one’s expression made paramount and established within the law.

In other words, the expression of “My rights end where yours begin” made manifest in example.

Not all speech is “free”, because some speech is libelous; some speech is incitement, and some speech is grossly negligent, and for all of this, laws already exist to punish these examples wherein they infringe unjustly upon the rights of others. Why you should think choices need to be made about restrictions on “hurtful” or “incorrect” speech, as you deign to tacitly demand, shows only that you cannot envisage a world where such restrictions would ever be used unjustly, which is blissfully naive at best and staggeringly blind to all of human history at worst.

The very concept of freedom is, frankly, built around allowing the maximal autonomy of people to co-exist and solve their own problems. That you think this freedom should be stifled without providing any reasonable framework beyond having an authority decide, shows that you either fundamentally misunderstand the point of it, or you have a dearth of trust for the rest of humanity, in which case why should they trust you for advice on what should be done about speech?

Why would you imply that more control from the state is necessary over the freedoms of people to act and be who they are, to make their own way about the world? Surely, if “dickheads saying awful things” is your problem, what would you ever do the moment a government decided that the term “dickhead” was "incorrect” as you stated, and thus required immediate arrest of or termination of anyone who uses or has ever used it?

While I recognize this is an extreme example, unlikely to ever occur, I would question what exactly your moral, ethical and logical defense of this premise is, because when you give the government the mandate to do what you’re claiming, they will, as we have seen in countries like the United Kingdom, act in whatever way best suits their interests. If the case of Chelsea Russel and the case of Markus Meechan, as well as the 3300 cases a year in the United Kingdom, where people are charged and fined for offensive communications on social media are any example to learn from, their lesson should be this:

The idea that speech is not a right grants free reign for the government to restrict it, police it, and mandate whatever awful and stupid measures it needs to in order to do so, as well as potentially silence all opponents whom the state disagrees with. If you fundamentally think this is an acceptable level of control for the state to have, then I can only ask you how you can dare proclaim yourself a doctor of ethics, while simultaneously advocating for the single most unethical government initiative imaginable?

Removing freedom of speech as a right is removing dissent as a right, and if people aren’t free to dissent, then they’re not free at all. If you don’t value your freedom, then so be it, but do not presume that the rest of us would dare give it up, simply because you are either too callow or too gutless to speak up for those who might offend with what they say, or worse because you think someone ought to be the arbiter of the value of speech, as though such a thing could ever be judged.