What are the limits to freedom of speech? Almost everyone believes in some limits to freedom of speech, unless you think that currency forging or child porn should be accepted as self-expression. You would have to be a psychopath to think that it’s acceptable to scream racial or sexual abuse into someone's face. What about the nuance beyond these extremes examples? Where is the line where free speech stops?
The case of online social network Gab is instructive in this debate. The website was shut down after the Pittsburgh synagogue mass shooting in which 11 people were killed. The perpetrator had posted on the social network before committing his crimes, which was a notorious gathering space for neo-Nazis, the alt-right and conspiracy theorists. It was filled with racial hatred and anti-Semitism; the sort of speech that most people think is completely unacceptable, but many argue should be allowed under free speech protections.
Gab's homepage (before it was shut down by its hosts) described it as: "A social network that champions free speech, individual liberty and the free flow of information online. All are welcome." The community certainly believed that there should be very few (if any) restrictions on speech. However, this led to it becoming a safe space for the worst speech and that ultimately contributed to a mass shooting. This implies that no limits to speech is the wrong approach.
The makers of Gab certainly leant to the right politically, but we'll assume that in creating a free speech community they didn't set out to create a safe heaven for hate speech, Nazis or the people who want to do a mass shooting. The problem is, that is what their web site became. The question is: why didn't Gab's community of free speech prevent this? They had unlimited free speech too, but they didn’t use it to prevent Nazis taking over the website.
If I was at a gathering of my friends, and someone said something hateful, then we would make it clear that wasn't acceptable and the person who said the awful thing would have to apologise or leave. Most people and most social gatherings are like this. Why wasn't it like this on Gab? Why isn't it like this so frequently online?
You could argue that Gab was an extreme case where free speech got out of hand and led to a mass shooting. Drawing up a framework for the limits of free speech is complicated. There is a difference between what speech I think should be legally tolerated by the government, and what speech I tolerate in my presence. There is a lot of stuff I don't want to hear that I think should still be legal.
Online it gets more complicated. Are social networks private or public spaces? They are the largest gatherings of people in the world, but they take place on platforms that are the private property of the companies that own them. Are they public squares, or private members clubs? The rules that gather what you can say or do in each is quite different.
I think that social networks (especially the large ones like Facebook and Twitter) should be treated more like public utilities than private spaces. This means users should have the same rights as they would have in public and the same recourse to appeal against decisions, however, it also means that there should be greater public scrutiny of what goes on on these platforms.
You may have a different view to me as to whether these are public spaces where and users should have the same rights as someone in the street or if they are private members clubs where the club gets to set and enforce the rules. If you think that these online spaces should have no restriction on them whatsoever, then remember the case of Gab.
So why did Gab become overrun with Nazis and people spreading racial hatred? Partly, it's because Nazis gravitate towards free speech zones the same way that weeds grow in unattended gardens. Nazis are everywhere online, but they get be weeded out by effective moderation. If your policy is no moderation, then Nazis will grow. Partly, it's because Nazis are leveraging the issue of free speech. Most people agree that free speech is a good thing (which it is) and that it shouldn't be restricted. If you believe this absolutely then it follows that Nazis should be allowed the same freedom of speech as everyone.
Nazis don't care about the free speech of people they hate - Jews, people of colour, usually women and LGBTQ people as well - but they are clear about their right to freedom of speech and use it to drive a division between leftists, who they paint was opposed to freedom of speech, and everyone else whose view of free speech are less nuanced. Nazis are leveraging this to their advantage and using it paint those who question the limits to free speech as worse than themselves and thus making their hateful views more palatable than questioning free speech.
This is feeding a popular conservative narrative that snowflake leftists (usually young people on campuses) who don't want to listen to ideas they disagree with are the real threat to free speech. The truth behind this narrative is several things coming together: an important debate about the limits of free speech, the legacy of no-platforming the far right, and a long overdue recognition of the different effects that hateful speech can have on different people. Conservatives aren’t interested in the nuance of these debates and are also attempting to leverage free speech for support.
What conservatives are frankly overreacting too (and in their overreaction they are giving an opportunity to the far-right to seize the issue) is a discussion amongst the left about what are the limits of freedom speech. This debate is important to prevent every public square and social network becoming the Nazi ridden hellscape that Gab became.
If we aren't going to have rules about what speech is and isn’t allowed then it's up to everyone to stop Nazis openly recruiting, which the example of Gab shows we are really bad at. This is my main concern. Clearly free speech communities have a problem with preventing Nazis, people who want to do commit mass shootings and other disgusting Internet bottom feeders from taking over. If there aren’t rules about speech then how do we stop the whole world becoming Gab?
If free speech communities cannot police themselves then we need stronger rules about what the limits of free speech is. Remember it isn't left-wing students who don't want Germaine Greer or Jacob Rees-Mogg on their campus who are shooting up synagogues. It's Nazis organising in free speech communities.
I am not saying we need to get rid of free speech. I am saying we need to know what the limits of free speech are. I think that the limits are threatening violence against people and spreading racial, sexual, gender, religious or other hatred. Are these limits accepted by everyone? Clearly not by the users of Gab who were happy to tolerate people saying they were going to commit mass murder.
We cannot afford to be blasé and say that anyone is allowed to say whatever they want, whenever they want, and nothing bad will ever happen. Discussing the limits of free speech is not the same as threatening it. It’s trying to find out the best way we can all live together, safely.