On the Spirit of Free Speech

Ellie McFarland | United States

In the wake of what has been dubbed “The Smirk Seen Round the World” questions about the morality of doxxing are arising. In the case of this most recent incident, a video surfaced of a group of private Catholic high school students (attending the March for Life), “Black Hebrew Israelites”, and a Native American veteran ensconced in a what amounted to a commotion of dull screaming and a drum beat. But what caught the internet’s attention was the now infamous smirk of Nick Sandmann– the student pictured most prominently in the video. Soon after the video was released, the internet at large erupted into a tsunami of hit pieces and Twitter hate mobs. Eventually, full-grown adults found the addresses and other personal information of several Covington high school students. This is doxxing.

Doxxing is the practice of publicly exposing personal or compromising information. These pieces of information may be a person’s name, age, place of work or school, or even their home address. This invasion of privacy, with a few caveats, is perfectly legal. People’s addresses, names, workplaces, and age, are public information, and if that information is acquired legally, releasing it is perfectly lawful. The law gets shakier when minors are involved, but even still it can be allowable in certain circumstances.

Ignoring the legality of such an act, and assuming that doxxing falls under “Freedom of Speech” it must be acknowledged that exposing someone’s personal information for the sake of petty revenge or to shut down that person’s argument, does not foster the spirit of free speech. The spirit of free speech isn’t a legal term, and rather is part of certain social agreements found in most lecture halls or debate venues. The spirit of free speech holds that certain actions, although legal and ought not to be legislated by the state, are not productive, do not carry any intellectual or artistic weight, and in fact devalue or impede other speech.

Forums of discussions that value free speech and discourse have sets of rules in place to protect everyone’s ideas and opinions. That is an important point. The reason obscenity laws exist, the reason liable and harassment laws exist, is because slander and vulgarity are not ideas. The spirit of free speech is about maintaining the accessibility of everyone’s ideas, thoughts, and opinions. For instance, if a person who is pro Position X stands to say their piece and is interrupted by shouting devoid of meaning or argument by someone who is anti Position X, that technically falls under the umbrella of free speech. But does shouting and ad hominem let all viewpoints show through? Absolutely not. Not only does shouting, literally and in the moment prevent a person’s words from being heard, but threats and character assassination discourage anyone from expressing a viewpoint they feel steps slightly out of line or may be slightly misinterpreted.

This is especially dangerous for people with genuinely unpopular or offensive opinions. The Marxist philosopher Rosa Luxemburg once said, “Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters.” Or in other words, free speech means nothing if it is not the freedom of the niche and objectionable to speak. Now, in the United States, those are fully protected under the law. However, as is clearly stated, the law doesn’t protect against social consequences. If you say something someone finds offensive, they can respond basically any way they want aside from violence or any other illegal act. These ways do include shouting and do include insult and hatred, as well as any properly reasoned criticism.

The author Christopher Hitchens laid it out quite nicely at a talk, summarizing the collective teachings of John Stuart Mill, John Milton, and Thomas Pane, on the subject. He says, “It’s not just the right of the person who speaks to be heard, it is the right of everyone in the audience to listen.” This boils down to acknowledging when some speech takes away from another’s speech. And it also carries an acknowledgment that one type of speech is more valuable than another. A harsh and nasty honest criticism carries more value than shouting. A nuanced unpopular opinion holds more value than popular uncontested opinion.

This is why the spirit of free speech is almost only officially used in very specific realms of academic or professional discourse. In these spaces, you don’t participate in the argument if you can’t be civil, you don’t speak unless you can be intellectually honest, and it isn’t particularly up to individual whims of deciding how to behave in the moment. However, these spaces are largely inaccessible for most Americans. Most Americans aren’t able to go to college speaking events several towns away from them to hear about something they might not even be all that interested in. Not to mention volatile communication is a difficult habit to break.

We need to bring the concept of the spirit of free speech outside of academia and discourse. We need to bring this to the dinner table, the office, dinner parties, and yes, we need to bring it to the internet. The children at the march for life have had their futures put in jeopardy. Both controversial figures and regular citizens can have their personal information published at any time. Does this help anything? Is this contributing to any solution or conversation? This does nothing but damage relationships and harms honest discussion.  

It is needless to say that state regulation of speech is always immoral, and is always a hideous example of governmental overreach. Hopefully, language will not be regulated in this way, and everyone will be forever free to be as fallacious as they please. But this is no way to solve the problems of our world. This is why it must be up to the individual to maintain the degree of respectability in the exchange of ideas that they not only wish to see but wish to experience. Criticize behavior that distracts from the conversation or debate. Criticize speech that squashes new ideas. But always, always, be the example in your circle of kindness, grace, and honesty.

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