The last two weeks I’ve been spending way too much time reading, thinking and tweeting about LambdaConf. If you’re unfamiliar with the situation and want to catch up, read this excellent post by @codepaintsleep.
One thing observing the situation has made me realize is that some folks have a very different conception of free speech than I do.
In my mind, our right to “free speech” prohibits the government from restricting or punishing speech. I do not view it as anti-free speech when a group of private citizens denies you the opportunity to speak in their spaces. Nor do I believe our constitutionally protected (in the United States) right to free speech guarantees anyone the right to unfettered expression via commercial platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, etc.
That’s not to say that I don’t have concerns about how companies and commercial bodies regulate expression within their realms. They often do it badly, enabling abuse, or reinforcing existing inequalities. Some entities have sufficient control in how business is done in their industries that their suppression of speech can have adverse affects similar to government censorship.
I also have complicated and unresolved feelings about the use of boycotts. Particularly this is true when it’s a call to boycott a vendor who provides a lot of things to the general public. I think even the most offensive material, should be available for people to learn from, to understand, to be aware of, should they choose to investigate. I think it’s possible in certain contexts to sell something without endorsing it.
Furthermore, I believe that the right to free speech must be balanced with the right to choose with whom we spend our time and what we do with our bodies. This doesn’t make me anti-free speech. This makes me pro-free speech, pro-free association, and pro-bodily autonomy. None of those rights make sense on their own without the others. If your right to free speech means that I have to listen to you no matter what, my right to free association and bodily autonomy is diminished.
Prior to this year’s LambdaConf debate I never thought there was a real debate about this. I’ve been around open source for a while, so I’m familiar with the idea that some think any restriction on speech, regardless of context, is censorship.
What’s new to me is that there are folks who think any mechanism which enables someone not to listen to you violates free speech and is censorship. By this logic, if Twitter were a noisy cafe, then putting on your headphones so you could concentrate would be censorship. And, by this logic, any tool that allow others to reduce their exposure to harassment (blocking, muting, etc.) is censorship. It’s even more egregious censorship if these tools are provided at scale.
Furthermore, some of these folks seem to think ‘free speech’ is an exemption from civil behavior and social norms.
I’m still processing what this means. If nothing else, it helps me understand better what’s going on when we debate about this stuff. Being weary of centralization and government interference is different from being weary of systems which empower individuals to choose what they consume and how they communicate with each other online.
I firmly believe we can create tools and systems which mitigate harassment and abuse while enabling free expression and exchange of information based on choice and autonomy. I believe we can design these systems in a ways that preserve anonymity when desired and that don’t necessarily further government surveillance and intrusion.
But we probably aren’t going to build these systems with the help of folks who are fully committed to prioritizing free speech at the expense of free association and bodily autonomy.