What is Freedom of Speech? — FSE Blog

What is Freedom of Speech?

I was under the impression that freedom of speech was uncontestable, though lately, it appears to be hotly contested. I've posted quite a bit about it and until the blog existed, didn't have a more general post to explain it.

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19

Obviously I'm not a huge fan of the various declarations coming from the United Nations and a large portion of the UDHR is a mess. (In particular, 29(3) is a "gotcha": you have the freedom of expression as long as you don't express anything "contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations", rendering the whole thing toothless.)

I think this is one of the best expressions of the principle I've seen, and it's certainly more concise:

Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.

— John Milton, Areopagitica (1644)

That is as close to what I mean when I say it as I've seen, I believe. If I'm going to elaborate, I'll say that you have the right to express any opinion you like, without regard for that opinion's popularity, and even if you do not hold that opinion yourself. Tied up in this, inextricably, is that you have the right to decide what you listen to as well.

"Rights" are a nebulous concept themselves. I am, fundamentally, an anarchist, so I do not mean rights "granted" by the state. I'm also an American, and the philosophical foundation of the rights enshrined in the Constitution is that humanity has these rights, and the government's obligation is to avoid interfering with the free exercise of them. I'm fully signed onto that proposition: everyone, without exception of any kind, has the right to form their own beliefs and opinions, to voice these beliefs, and to listen to others' beliefs.

Nothing is more important than your ability to listen, speak, and think for yourself. Even if you are advocating against your right to do so, you are exercising that right.

Subverting the definition

This is all unobjectionable: you have the right to your own conscience, your own beliefs, and you have the right to argue them, or to listen to others argue in favor or against any beliefs. So if you don't mind being disingenuous, a very simple way to argue against freedom of speech is to use your own definition of the term and to act as if your opponents are also using your definition. So, to be clear, when I advocate for freedom of speech, what I advocate for is nothing more nor less than what I have said above.

Disingenuous propagandists have had some amount of success planting strawman definitions in the minds of the naïve on this topic. (I've been misrepresented quite a bit, which came as a personal surprise. I'll have more to say about this in the future as well, though it's a bit off-topic for this post.)

The effect this has is, essentially, to demonize a virtue. It is used as an excuse to censor, a paternalistic tut-tut: "You can't be trusted to look at this." It's authoritarian, it's a power game. There's no other reason to attempt to decide, on behalf of another person, what they should be able to read.


Censorship of a concept is both immoral and impractical in the general case.

I can't recommend Frank Zappa's statement to the PMRC highly enough. The PMRC, for background, was an attempt to soft-censor music by threatening censorship. Frank Zappa gave an incredible statement and dealt very patiently with smug senators that didn't know the sort of person they were dealing with.

If you haven't heard about Jello Biafra's obscenity trial, qz has a decent write-up. Zappa actually offered Biafra advice on how to handle it.

As is widely known, the government in North Korea interferes with the rights of its citizens, particularly their freedom of speech. They have an internal Twitter-like service, and it became common among dissidents to post, whenever there was a disaster somewhere, "This is all America's fault." That was forbidden (and sensationalized in the press as "Kim Jong-un outlaws sarcasm!"). In the PRC, another place that interferes with the right to speak your conscience, an interesting practice has popped up: replying to a message with "呵呵", or "hēhē". According to a really interesting post on rawr-xd.club, this has three potential meanings depending on the context: onomatopoeia for laughter (analogous to "haha"), an expression of agreement with the implication that the speaker doesn't wish to explain openly, or an expression of disagreement without hope of coming to an understanding. The ambiguity makes it difficult to know who is dismissing an idea out-of-hand or who is trying to say "I agree, but I can't agree openly." The message will get through, and you can twist yourself into knots trying to stop people from comparing you to Winnie the Pooh all you like, but even if you build a Great Firewall, you can't stop it: all you can do is make it harder to notice.

That is, you blind yourself rather than silencing others. You drive it underground. But it gets worse: in addition to blinding yourself, you make yourself an object of ridicule at best and give ammunition to those you're censoring. "This is the truth that they won't let you see!" is a very good hook. I'm going to pick an easy target: Richard Spencer. I was watching, I don't remember, some exposé of some sort, and it followed the protestors around, people trying to shut down some event where he was a speaker, and when this was unsuccessful, they tried to prevent people from entering the building. Quick cut to the stage, and he's up there saying (I paraphrase), "A lot of people tried to shut this talk down, because they're afraid of you hearing this message. They're outside trying to keep you from coming in! Why? Because they can't deny any of it!" and he goes on and on, he's got the secret, the knowledge they are trying to suppress, because he's exposing them for what they are, and so on. The protestors outside were not actually convincing anyone. What do you do when you believe that some authority doesn't want you to know something, and that there are people that will attempt to physically prevent you from hearing it? The effect is just to pique people's curiosity about the "forbidden knowledge" and to solidify lines. What are you going to do when everyone's dug in? You can't change someone's mind by force. Are you going to just kill people that disagree with you?

Cults and radical ideologies thrive on isolation. If they don't say it in public, they won't have to face scrutiny. They control the entire story, they can frame it however they want. Banning speech does the cults' work for them. Bringing in some sunlight kills these things.

It is a common distortion to narrow "censorship" to "state censorship". State censorship is, in the general case, completely reprehensible. However, if you have prevented people from seeing a message, you have engaged in censorship. You are not the state (probably!), so the scope of your ability to censor is probably somewhat limited, but no less reprehensible. Perhaps you should consider what sort of person you'd actually be if you had any power.

For my part, I have rejected the concept of censorship: I do not wish to stop anyone from speaking or listening to anything. I am an anarchist, I do not want to stop anyone from doing anything that doesn't affect me.

"Illocutionary acts"

One of the most absurd misrepresentations of freedom of speech is that it is about flapping your mouth, which is to say, people will claim that anything that comes out of your mouth is covered. At no point in history has anyone advocated for the universal right to freedom of speech and meant this to also confer the right to burst someone's tympanic membrane by screaming at full volume into their ear. Obviously, nobody can mean that.

I encounter this objection surprisingly often, though. There's obviously a line between the free expression of opinions and actions carried out by speaking. This should be obvious from the terms used: "freedom of speech" is often referred to as "freedom of expression" to prevent this confusion.

When discussing "illocutionary acts", John R. Searle wrote, "One important class of such cases is that in which the speaker utters a sentence, means what he says, but also means something more. For example, a speaker may utter the sentence 'I want you to do it' by way of requesting the hearer to do something. The utterance is incidentally meant as a statement, but is also meant primarily as a request, a request made by way of making a statement."

To put this a little more briefly, think about the difference between saying "Sirhan Sirhan ought to be shot" and "Go execute Sirhan Sirhan right now." The first is an expression of a belief (and drags in other beliefs by implication: a belief in capital punishment, a belief that his assassination of RFK was a murder, etc.), while the latter is a directive. (To be clear, because the internet hates nuance, I do not think anyone should go shoot Sirhan Sirhan or that the state should carry out executions.)

Context is also important. If I stand up at my desk right now and say "We find the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree", then this means nothing. If I do the same as foreman of a jury after a judge asks me for the jury's verdict, then I have carried out an action. If I do so while acting in a play or a movie, then I'm clearly not carrying out any sort of action except putting on a show to convey the writers' story.

I'm stating the obvious. This principle is something everyone grasps intuitively, but for some reason, if you put it next to the concept of freedom of speech, they completely forget it. Mysteries never cease!

So spam, harassment, threats, these are all not about conveying anything; they're an attempt to compel an action.

Why is this important?

We have figured out, over millennia, that on the balance, there are a few constants:

We need freedom of speech to solve problems. We need it to deal with the unexpected. To deny freedom of speech is to say that you have figured it out and that the world will never change in a way that invalidates your current beliefs. This is so small-minded as to be genuinely confusing: you yourself will change in ways that invalidate your current beliefs.

"What if I don't like the outcome, though?"

Grow up.

Somewhat less glibly, the outcome of freedom is always better. The outcome of compulsion is authoritarianism, and that outcome is only better for the authorities. More on this later, too. Thought is a distributed process, and as cryptic as that is, I will have to save elaboration for another post, too.

You can't stop me

I can't imagine a reasonable objection to general censorship of an idea. I've heard plenty of attempts.

Here's what it comes down to, though: you can't stop me. I have infinite lives and infinite ammo. I'm giving everyone instances to everyone that wants one. This is funded out of pocket but donations are helpful and appreciated.


This is a bit windy. I have a lot more to say on the topic. I do plan to address some common misconceptions and common objections.