Freedom Of Speech, Not Freedom From Criticism

January 17, 2010 at 9:54 pm (Miscellaneous) (, , , )

Here, there is a list of Internet Argument Techniques. Number Eight is referred to as the “First Amendment Reinterpretation.” It seemed to me to be relevant to this article by Catherine Bennett: Say what you like, as long as it meets with the mob’s approval.

In the article, Bennett  writes of Twitter and Facebook that “many thousands of their members evidently believe that extreme obnoxiousness is adequate pretext for censorship.” I think that Catherin Bennett may be mistaken on this point. Extreme obnoxiousness is probably not believed by the Twitterati to be adequate pretext for censorship, but for criticism. It may have escaped the notice of some, but criticism is not the same thing as censorship.

Although online authoritarians have been slow to take decisive action against, say, Islamist groups who demand that the stoning of gays and the subjugation of women be introduced in the UK, they have proved themselves to be fantastically swift and effective when individual illiberal opinions have required shutting down. […]

Public figures will become ever blander in their views. So long as massed aggression passes itself off as collective free speech, the exalted motives of an online mob will trump any accusations of organised bullying and cruelty. These days, it piously reminds us, the privilege of free expression carries with it a grave responsibility: not to say anything people might not like.

There is, though, no need to “become ever blander” for fear of being “shut down” or “bullied” – if you can defend what you write or say and you stand by your views, then defend those views. That is what I hope I would do were I in such a situation. On the other hand, if I wrote or said something reprehensible and which was picked up on by these “mobs” that Bennett writes of, I hope I would be big enough to retract and apologise.

Bennett seems to confuse “freedom of speech” with “freedom from criticism”. We are not talking about an issue such as legal chill here, this is simply a case of criticism being voiced. No-one (as far as I know) is threatening to sue Liddle for libel or attempting to obtain an injunction* to prevent him from voicing his own views.

We all have a right freedom of speech (within certain sensible boundaries). Rod Liddle is free to say and write pretty much whatever he likes, so long as it is legal (for example, he should probably try to avoid writing anything that is libellous or incites racial or ethnic hatred).

While Liddle is free to give voice to his views, we are free to criticise what he says.


*Amusingly, I could not remember the word “injunction” while writing this and had to find it by googling for Trafigura.

Other posts I’ve written on debate and criticism

The well-meaning defence, the vitriol defence, online debate and criticism.

Posts others have written on Bennett’s Liddle Article

Sarah Ditum, Enemies of Reason, Left foot forward.


  1. =skeptic cat^= said,

    LoLULZ! “Thanks to freedom of speech, you are going to jail for the words you said.”

    Criticism on the internet is often undertaken with unusual incivility and immaturity, unfortunately. So much so that when a really big issue does come up legitimate criticism of genuinely abhorrent situations worthy of the kind of bellicose responses characteristic of the medium arise they sort of get lost in all the he-said-she-said to be found in the comment sections nearly all News outlet webposts and YouTube videos.

    History shows how counterproductive it can be to tolerate very intolerant individuals, like Michael Savage who has personally called for various groups of people to be “locked up” and even “rounded up” for their political opinions, himself. I’m sorry, it’s very hard to have any sympathy for the guy and, as a fellow countryman, I wish that we could take the same steps that the UK Government did. I wish I didn’t feel that way but I really do. This isn’t someone who has simply come out against homosexuality on a personal level but has literally called for the imprisonment of homosexuals in America. You don’t want him in your country, trust me.

    I can’t speak for Rod Little but I doubt he can be much worse than some of our Talk Radio and Fox News folks, quite frankly.

  2. Freedom of Speech and the Internet « Stuff And Nonsense said,

    […] Bad Science and LBC, The Quackometer on web hosts good and bad, Catherine Bennett on Liddle, my thoughts on Bennett’s article, the Streisand […]

  3. A Brief Guide To Deflecting Criticism « Stuff And Nonsense said,

    […] defence (because pointing out that people are wrong is “mean”), and the bogus claims of censorship that are sometimes made (when people, deliberately or otherwise, wrongly equate robust criticism […]

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