Finding The Limits Of Freedom Of Speech

Published on the Online Spin, September 30th, 2019.

The following was previously posted in an earlier edition of Media Insider.

On the 15th of March of this year, a man armed himself, got into his car, and drove to a mosque. He was greeted in peace by one of the worshippers: “Hello, brother.” He shot dead the man who greeted him, along with 51 others. He wounded 47 more.

Mass shootings in the U.S. have reached epidemic proportions, but this was not in the U.S. It was in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the aftermath was somewhat different to the “thoughts and prayers” ritual played out in El Paso, in Dayton, in Parkland.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was hailed globally for her empathetic response. The government acted swiftly to ban military-style semiautomatics and assault rifles. And just two months after the attack, Ardern, along with French President Emmanuel Macron, brought together a group of heads of state and tech leaders to announce the Christchurch Call: a pledge to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online to stop the Internet being used as a tool for terrorists.

But there was another element to the response, one that didn’t get nearly as much attention. It happened well before the Christchurch Call, just a few days after the attack itself. It was the Chief Censor of New Zealand classifying the live-stream video of the attack, along with the manifesto that accompanied it, as “objectionable material.” Within days of the slaughter, it became illegal for anyone in New Zealand to possess or distribute the video or the document.

In a recent talk at TEDxChristchurch, Chief Censor David Shanks described the tension between freedom of speech and public safety. Every society, he pointed out, has limits on free speech. Even in the United States, the right to free speech won’t help you if you’re caught with child pornography on your computer.

But censorship is, of course, a blunt tool, one that can easily be used to silence those less powerful and crush dissent. To that end, we need to develop censorship rules that cannot be used to advantage those in power. The laws permitting censorship have to be clear that freedom comes first, and you can only censor to prevent future harm.

It’s not an easy line to walk. But it is an essential one. As Shanks explained, “there’s a paradox that sits at the heart of freedom of speech… If you really, truly value [it], then you have to put limits on it. You can’t tolerate the intolerable… If you give terrorists unrestrained freedom of speech, then they just use it as another weapon. Once people like that have the upper hand, then you can be sure freedom of speech will be one of the first freedoms they crush.”

No right is absolute.

In a recent Stratechery column, Ben Thompson dissected a report by Farhad Manjoo at The New York Times. Manjoo spent a few days using a version of Firefox specially modified to record how websites track users’ data.

He was horrified by what he found. “The big story is as you’d expect: that everything you do online is logged in obscene detail, that you have no privacy. And yet, even expecting this, I was bowled over by the scale and detail of the tracking; even for short stints on the web… the amount of information collected about my endeavors was staggering.”

Thompson broke down why Manjoo’s piece was potentially misleading, finishing with, “[T]his is not to say that privacy isn’t important: it is one of many things that are important. That, though, means that online privacy in particular should not be the end-all be-all but rather one part of a difficult set of trade-offs that need to be made when it comes to dealing with this new reality that is the Internet. Being an absolutist will lead to bad policy.” (Emphasis mine.)

In a world where information is infinite and transmission is instantaneous, where our interactions are intermediated by algorithms optimized to maximize reach and clicks, we cannot afford to be absolutists. It’s hard to embrace the complexity of the issues we face. But we must. The alternative is far worse.

Kaila Colbin