Banning Speech Isn’t a Threat to Democracy

The case against free speech absolutism

Erik Engheim

--

A lot of ignorance about free speech and its history has developed. The free speech absolutism promoted by Elon Musk is a symptom of this. In most ways, it will undermine rather than enhance freedom of expression. Of course, Elon Musk didn’t invent this concept, but it is rather become a popular banner for many who don’t want the hate speech challenged. Ironically, people who are not committed to free speech at all but who are eager to ban anything they don’t like, especially if it is speech advocating some kind of marginalized group they dislike. What is going on here? Everyone says they favor free speech, but evidently have very different ideas of what that entails.

To understand better, it helps to put free speech in a historical context. Free speech advocacy historically grew out of the difficulty of criticizing the rich and the powerful. The elite controlled the speech and made sure they were immune to criticism. For a society, that meant that the common people, the poor and the weak were deprived of a voice. They could be squashed and abused without any way to really speak out against their oppression.

Thus, the history of free speech is intrinsically linked to the ability to speak truth to power. It is for those at the bottom to challenge those at the top. It has never been a problem, even in dictatorships, to spread hatred against marginalized groups. You look at European absolute monarchies or other feudal societies in the past, and they didn’t have issues with people spreading hatred towards Jews or people of another religion than the majority. Hate towards marginalized groups has always been well-supported.

Thus, free speech laws were never made intending to protect hate speech. Hate speech has in many ways always had a privileged position, and been part of the oppression carried out by many states. Laws are rarely put in place to protect a majority mob, but to protect a minority. Constitutions tend to set a minimum bar of rights which all citizens should enjoy regardless of this skin color, race, gender, or age.

A problem with protecting hate speech by a majority mob against a minority is that you enable authoritarian movements. We saw how the Nazis in Germany were able to…

--

--

Erik Engheim

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.