Here’s the thing about free speech: It’s not absolute.

The misconception that freedom of speech is absolute is most prevalent on the Internet, writes Emma Teitel

(Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

Ellen Pao, interim CEO of Reddit. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

Listen to Emma Teitel read her column, or subscribe to Maclean’s Voices on iTunes or Stitcher for on-the-go listening:

If you Google “common misconceptions,” you’re likely to see one of the following corrections: Napoleon wasn’t actually very short, Marie Antoinette did not say “Let them eat cake,” J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books did not inspire the most voracious reading generation in history, and Mozart did not write Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. (It turns out, he only wrote variations on the original tune.) But what you’re unlikely to see on such a list is a fallacy far more popular than any involving Harry Potter or French royalty—a fallacy that’s a catalyst for boycotts and political protests of every stripe. That fallacy is the notion that free speech is absolute. It is the belief that freedom of expression does not mean freedom to speak your mind without government interference, but freedom to speak your mind without any interference at all.

When New York rapper Action Bronson’s scheduled public performance at this month’s North by Northeast music festival in Toronto was cancelled on account of his explicit lyrics—some of which feminists believe glorify rape—fans of the rapper were under the impression that a great injustice had taken place. (More than 40,000 people signed a petition asking the festival to cancel Bronson’s performance at Yonge-Dundas Square in the city’s centre; many suggested the performance be moved to a private venue.) What Bronson’s forlorn fans fail to grasp, however, is that while it may be annoying that some people would rather loudly boycott an event than simply quietly not attend, NXNE, a music festival with a reputation to uphold and sponsors to appease, is in no way obligated to allow Action Bronson to shout violent obscenities in the public square.

In fact, nobody is obligated to let another person do so—not even the government, if what that person is saying constitutes hate speech. But a misconception about freedom of speech persists in our culture, and nowhere is this misconception more prevalent than on the Internet. Case in point: Reddit, often referred to as the “bulletin board” of social media websites, shut down a group of popular, highly offensive sub-reddits (conversation threads) this month, because the site’s interim CEO, Ellen Pao, was trying to eliminate harassment on the site. Of course, thousands of Reddit users revolted—branding Pao a servant to political correctness and a dictator. The most popular banned sub-reddit in question, “Fat people hate,” dedicated to humiliating and disparaging overweight people, had 150,000 subscribers. Pao’s reasons for dismantling the offensive sub-reddits weren’t, she argued, ideologically driven. Thousands of racist and homophobic sub-reddits are still in operation on the website; Pao says she eliminated only a handful of them, because they had unique reputations for harassing behaviour that extended beyond the Internet and into the real world. But many users believe Pao’s decision is hypocritical and directly tied to her personal political beliefs. Pao is, in British journalist and pundit Milo Yiannopoulos’s view, a product of “politically correct Silicon Valley culture.” Yiannopoulos understands that freedom of speech laws generally deal with government silencing, but he believes people should take silencing on social media far more seriously.

“Private corporations like Twitter and 4Chan have a significant and chilling effect on speech and discourse in the public square when they shut down discussion.”

Yiannopoulos is right. But his point doesn’t negate the fact that corporations are not governments in the business of protecting fundamental freedoms. They are in the business of turning a profit, something they can’t do with shoddy reputations.

Arthur Chu, the 11-time Jeopardy champion and columnist who writes frequently on tech issues, sees similarities between Pao’s shutting down of offensive sub-reddits and the way traditional media outlets edit their reader feedback. “Print newspapers never felt obligated to print every single profane note someone sent them in the mail,” he says. “Quite the opposite: Letters sections were very heavily edited, and no one called that censorship.” Editing the letters sections, he argues, is necessary, if you want to publish a “readable, responsible newspaper, so why do we think enabling the scrawling of graffiti all over the bathroom wall is now somehow a matter of constitutional principle?”

Perhaps it’s liberating to believe that, no matter our political leanings and prejudices, there’s a place we can say whatever we please, without consequence.

But that place never existed. Even in the Internet age, most of us express ourselves in public squares that are ultimately private spaces, run by corporations.

Those spaces have bottom lines. And lines in the sand.


Here’s the thing about free speech: It’s not absolute.

  1. “1. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

  2. there never has been free speech – not even once in human history. most of taught human history is a lie on a line. those few involved in the monolithic groups jfk talked about in 1961 understand but outside of those few societies the human race has no truths..

    so what happens when a truth is broadcast… well its washed from the public record quickly with rumors and disinformation so the public never figures out the truth.. this is done via many roving groups of intelligence agency paid disinformation personnel anything that even remotely involves an opinion of what the ruling oligarchs want the public to perceive is immediately discounted and labeled lies..

    i hold those in the media partially responsible for the predicament that is human society.. if they would get the courage required to print truths then no lies would flourish however seems very few in the media are willing to take the time to educate themselves on truths and would rather be mockingbirds for the establishments that are slowing killing their family and loved ones. human sacrifices for those whom think the thirty three is everything.

    being blind to see truth is a choice. remember that emma teitel.


  3. Way to knock down that straw man with a couple of anecdotes.

    Freedom of Expression is a fundamental right enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

    Now, obviously that doesn’t mean you can speak wherever or whenever you want. But that doesn’t mean I can’t say whatever I want.

    • The quote is FROM the Charter.

      And no, you can’t say whatever you want.

      • Sure you can – as long as you’re willing to put up with the consequences. And they can be quite wide-ranging.

  4. In a way it’s funny that we’re living in a time where it’s the conservatives who are more likely to defend free speech and progressives who argue for the right of corporations to turn a profit. The latter might be singing a different tune if offensive pro-abortion or anti-Republican texts or speeches were being silenced or censored (remember the Dixie Chicks?) but never mind….

    It may be that the Charter only prohibits government interference with free speech. But such a prohibition might not be enough in a society as dominated as it is today by big business. So unless we’re content to sell our souls not only to the company store but the whole damn company, maybe we need to get the message out that unless corporations respect freedom of speech as a social value, their reputation will suffer just as it would if it refused to do business with minorities or gays.

    Keep in mind the same respect for freedom of speech (which again goes beyond the Charter’s version of it) protects those who fight for social justice as much as those who make offensive comments.

    • Conservatives? Defend free speech? Have you read C-51?

      And, of course, Harper has sued people for saying things he didn’t like…

      • Keith,

        I doubt you yourself have read it.

        The problem with free speech, is that there isn’t enough of it.

  5. I once yelled “Theatre !!” at a crowded fire….it was sooo dramatic

  6. Doesn’t the Bible and the Quran also limit free speech? Could it be that free speech is limited is because people tend to take it to the extreme. Let’s face we are boorish by nature.

  7. I think Emma’s point about a PRIVATE website having the freedom to make their own rules is extremely important. It is separate from government interfering and making laws concerning what constitutes protected speech. Reddit also banned climate skeptics from posting. They have every right to do that. Do I think it’s right? No, but let’s be serious – everybody knows that Reddit isn’t a site that encourages free thought and serous discussion. Bottom line: if you want free speech online, create your own website or blog and have at it, keeping in mind that you will suffer the consequences if Big Brother decides you are spreading “hate”.

    • Sorry, that should read “serious” discussion. There’s no edit function here?

  8. “In fact, nobody is obligated to let another person do so—not even the government, if what that person is saying constitutes hate speech.”

    Actually, regarding the government, this is incorrect in the USA (Canada is a different story). The 1st amendment does not distinguish between “free speech” and “hate speech” in any way.

    The Supreme Court has repeatedly sided in favor of the speaker, including when neo-nazis marched w/swastikas through a jewish neighborhood, and when the westboro baptist church picketed the funerals of fallen soldiers w/anti-gay slogans.

    With regards to Reddit, it is of course a private company and can censor anything it wants. The 1st amendment only would prevent the government from demanding Reddit take down “hate speech”.