The Right Of Reply

One meme I’ve noticed permeating its way through the more conservative parts of society recently (especially in regards to defending homophobia and inequal rights for GLBTQI people) is that freedom of speech means that backlash against what you’ve said is wrong and somehow circumvents your right to free speech.

It’s fundamentally trivial to debunk this: If you have freedom to say whatever you want, then anyone who disagrees with you must also have the freedom to talk about why they disagree, and what specifically you have done or said that they object to. Freedom of speech means that nobody is allowed to interfere with your peaceful political expression. From that principle it’s fairly clear that trying to prevent backlash against someone who expressed their opinion would actually be restriction of speech, not freedom of speech.

I’m beginning to think of this as a sort of “right of reply”. Every point of view ought to have a “right of reply” to some degree, however extreme that view is. Accepting and even encouraging this dialogue is a very important part of a modern democracy. Asserting that someone else’s right of reply denies you free speech is ridiculous. Now, you can assert that they’re doing so in a way that’s not transparent, (ie. they’re hiding behind a front to avoid responsibility for their actions and words) or that they’re using money to help them in a way that damages our democratic society. (ie. flood advertising for an election or a referendum) But you’ll notice that neither of these actually restrict the flow of political ideas- they restrict actions which change the nature of the political “game”.

Saying you’re “just exercising your right to free speech” does not remove your responsibility for what you’ve said. Free speech is a barrier the people erect against the government, not an excuse to say whatever you like without consequence. If people have a right to say their bigoted piece, then other people have a right to say why they think it is bigoted. That’s not harassment or a personal attack. It’s right and responsibility- the two consequences of personal liberation.

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2 Responses

  1. What about the right to be ignorant? I’ve heard many, many people tell me that I’m circumventing their right to free speech by refusing to let them call me satan’s homosexualist pigdog.

    If I am actively not listening to someone, does that mean I’m essentially censoring them from myself? Does that count as affecting their freedom of speech? I sure hope not.

    I very, very much like the last paragraph.

  2. What about the right to be ignorant? I’ve heard many, many people tell me that I’m circumventing their right to free speech by refusing to let them call me satan’s homosexualist pigdog.

    The right of reply isn’t really about someone’s right to talk to you, it’s about their right to respond in public to something you have said in public. Whether or not you listen is irrelevant to that equation.

    Besides, I don’t think you could stop someone from calling you satan’s homosexualist pigdog short of physically restraining them or disconnecting all your electronic forms of communication 😉

    If I am actively not listening to someone, does that mean I’m essentially censoring them from myself? Does that count as affecting their freedom of speech? I sure hope not.

    Again, freedom of speech is about someone’s right to engage the public in general. The only people who “have” to listen in principle are the media, whose theoretical job it is to report all significant viewpoints. Not that this actually happens in practice. 😉

    I’d say that people who think that individuals listening to each other is somehow involved in free speech are wrong. The concept they’re looking for is “voice”, which is more about social equality than political freedom. It’s still an important one, of course, and it’s something I’ve been shadow-boxing here before.

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