Questions about the Meaning of Free Speech


The subject of free speech seems simple. It is not. I am in favour of free speech. Of course I am. Lots of people have had a lot to say about. Even I. But what actually does that mean?

I want to look more closely at this question to figure out what I mean by the statement which I have often made that I believe in free speech. What do I mean by it and what not? What do others mean by it?

I know there are aspects of free speech that I admit are a bit tricky.

I was inspired to consider this issue by considering the words of the author Evelyn Beatrice Hall who said this: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” That is a pretty bold claim. Does anyone actually mean that? Voltaire was one of my favourite philosophers and many think he said that. He said many interesting things but not that.

Sometimes, rarely perhaps, lawyers and judges can impart some wisdom to such ideas. The courts have often considered this issue particularly our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as it relates to freedom of expression and conscience. I want to look at what the Charter has to say. One of those judges who has opined on free speech, the American Supreme Court Judge, Louis Brandeis, said when asked if we should try to shut up speech we don’t like: “The remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” Yet, how true is that statement?

We live in the age of the. Internet. In fact, we live in the wild west of the internet which abounds with free speech and much of it is abysmally ignorant, but incredibly dangerous, as we have realized in the Age of Covid, if we did not realize it earlier.

Recently, there have been serious efforts in the United States (the land of the free no less) and, of course, many other places, to limit free speech. Here are a few examples: Twitter banned President Trump permanently (supposedly) from Twitter. Was that right? A lot of Trump’s speech was hateful. Much of it consisted of lies. And much of it encouraged dangerous, reckless, and hateful behavior. Yet he is a controversial political figure revered by millions of Americans. Should we not be able to listen to him? Should such speech be limited? Does it matter that Twitter is a corporation beyond democratic control? Should Jack Dorsey and his partners who own it be able to shut down the president of the United States from their platform? How about Greenpeace? Or the Church of God Restoration? Or your local Satanists?  Should they be shut down? As a corporation owned privately or publicly traded should it be able to do that? How about Mark Zuckerberg should he have such power. His Meta (Facebook) empire already brags about the number of people it ejects from its platforms every day. Are we comfortable with that?

Remember I just ask questions. I never give answers (I wish that were actually true.) As Voltaire said, “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”

There are lots of questions worth pursuing here.


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