I have been witness to a lot of arguments about free speech over the years, and I haven’t made up my mind where I stand. On the one hand, there are strong arguments that freedom of speech preserves other essential freedoms, and that we must be able to speak truth to power. However, there are also strong arguments that hate speech is harmful and that ‘free’ speech embodies and exaggerates existing power imbalances. However, it occurs to me that with the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency, we have a unique opportunity to see an empirical test on the key arguments for and against free speech.
Here are a few of the key arguments for free speech.
- Free speech by itself is not, and can never be, harmful. If free speech encourages people to violence, the laws already exist to deal with the violence itself, there is no need to criminalise free speech.
- Free speech can be used to air extreme positions, but it can also be used to argue against them. Allowing extremists and zealots to speak freely will show up the inherent flaws in their arguments and weaken them in the long run.
- Free speech must be protected because any limitations on free speech would inevitably be used by authoritarian leaders to limit their opposition. We must therefore protect free speech in its purest form to prevent authoritarians from silencing speech against them.
- Freedom of speech is a Good Thing in its own right, needing no purpose to justify its existence.
If these hold, then I would predict:
- Donald Trump’s campaign and election should not cause an uptick in racial violence, or if there is such an uptick it should lead to successful prosecutions which suppress the violence quickly. (See also Brexit).
- Donald Trump’s racist arguments should have led to widespread ridicule in the media and amongst the populace, and weakened his campaign whenever he made them.
- Donald Trump will be unable to limit or restrict criticism or opposition in the media or by the public because free speech is an important right in the US and limiting it would not be tolerated.
- Okay, so #4 isn’t really empirically testable. We’ll let this one pass for now.
So how does the evidence look?
I would argue that currently there is strong evidence against #2, and strong evidence from the UK (Brexit) against #1. There is also starting to be evidence from the US against #1. We don’t know as yet about #3; we will have to wait for Donald Trump to actually take power. I will be interested to see the results.
By the middle of next year, we may be in a good position to be able to decide empirically whether it is acceptable to ban hate speech. Although by then it may be too late to do anything about it.
Note: I am not against freedom of speech broadly. I do feel that there should be limits on speech inciting hatred or violence. I broadly believe that anything taken to its extreme,tends to be a bad idea, and that includes defending freedom of speech with absolutely no limitations. However, *if* Trump is unable to prevent criticism or limit the media, then maybe it was all worth it.