Free Speech Isn’t Free When It Comes With Death Threats

We live in a world surrounded by the great myth of free speech. Anyone can take up a blog, a microphone, an op-ed column, or any other tool and speak out, and others will listen. In the United States in particular, free speech is considered both a fundamental right and a key component of our national identity — speech can take so many forms, and all of them are important, from political commentary to pop culture criticism to expressing a personal opinion on tacos. We celebrate free speech, and decry attacks on the freedom of the press as well as individuals.

But can we say that speech is truly free in the US when so many people encounter death threats, rape threats, and other acts of terrorism in an attempt to silence them? Around the world, people who have spoken up against governments and in an attempt to fight for social movements have faced similar repression, both from their governments and from society in general. The US has condemned such cases, and in some cases has even threatened to go to war over them — the issue of free speech around the world is a subject the US government feels passionately about, and it’s one that comes up in foreign relations and other negotiations on a routine basis.

As a nation, we think ourselves superior to countries without free speech protections enshrined into their laws, and to nations where people cannot speak without great personal risk if they’re voicing minority opinions. We pride ourselves on being AMERICA, where all opinions are welcome and all voices have value, from the President’s addresses to the nation to the small, individual blogger with a handful of followers who wants to put forth a great idea. We believe in the possibility of free speech in a nation, in the power of being able to write, to protest, to comment, to create and respond.

Yet, speech in the US isn’t free when people are afraid to speak — this is a form of suppression that may not be addressed under the law (as only governments can commit censorship) but is no less important. If people cannot speak up about something because the personal risks are too high, their human rights are being infringed, whether a court or the government would agree that they deserve protections. Why aren’t these issues addressed, in this great nation of ours that claims to value free speech so much?

This is, of course, particularly striking when it comes to progressive commentary on social issues. It’s a particularly common issue for women, of course, who commonly find their speech suppressed. Let’s take, for example, a woman writing about pop culture who is repeatedly screamed down by people who don’t like her. That’s simple disagreement, and it’s not very polite, but there’s nothing about it that constitutes a particular violation, though she might not feel inclined to write when facing that level of vitriol on a regular basis.

But what about when that response starts to transition into something more sinister, with credible threats against her, her family, or her friends? What happens when her identity is outed, when people distribute her home address, when it becomes clear that she is at great personal risk, simply for speaking up? Many women go into hiding, valuing their security more than the possibility of being heard (an entirely legitimate respond, mind you), while others struggle to continue speaking out, to be open about the abuse they are enduring, and to get the issue addressed by law enforcement and social groups that claim to be invested in protecting free speech rights.

Curiously, the same kinds of people who deluge women like these are also the same people who scream ‘free speech!’ in comment threads where moderation is used to cultivate a productive discussion. They claim that free speech at all costs is critical to them, yet, when that speech goes against their own personal views, or cuts too close to the bone, they’re the first to engage in suppressive activity that is designed to push people into silence, or, in some cases, to silence them permanently; people in the US are absolutely murdered for speaking up for what they believe in, and they are raped, and they are otherwise punished for having voices and using them.

The disconnect between the claim that free speech is a fundamental value in the US, that everyone has an equal chance, that everyone can speak without fear of reprisal, and the facts of the situation on the ground, is striking. And telling. It’s dominant social groups who feel unafraid when it comes to raising their voices, while minorities fighting back on social issues and trying to construct a more just world are, of course, hung out to dry. When the crowds clamoring for free speech rights see someone being attacked, suppressed, and assailed, they look the other way, because that person’s speech isn’t to their taste.

I value free speech, intensely, as long as it doesn’t include hate speech and incitements to violence. It doesn’t always agree with me, and I can choose to not engage with it, or to criticise it, as case may be. But I don’t believe in suppressing speech — and I have (and will) ridden to the defense of people with opposing beliefs who are being threatened and shouted down by people who should know better.

Because we cannot truly have free speech in a world where if you don’t like what someone has to say, you can just hurl a threat at that person and call it good.

Image: A Soap Box., Matt, Flickr