What free speech really means

Too often, in any argument, both sides will throw out ‘free speech’ and leave it there.

It has a tendency to shut down discussion, as when someone you’re arguing against asserts you are going against their right to free speech, it derails any point you were trying to make.

The issue of free speech has come up twice in contentious issues in recent weeks.

First, with the issue of the flag.

Second, with a recent discussion in Canadian media about cultural appropriation.

My thoughts on cultural appropriation are complex, and nuanced, and I’ll deal with them in a column tomorrow.

Today, I’ll stick to free speech.

The fact is, free speech is not free.

Thanks to free speech, you can, mostly, say whatever you want.

But you can’t say what you want without consequence.

You can’t do anything without consequence.

If I walked up to you, insulted your mother, and called you vulgar names, and you punched me in the face, would you have taken my free speech rights away? I don’t think so. I was able to say what I wanted, and I dealt with the consequences. I likely wouldn’t say it again, but I would still have the right to, if I was willing to bear the consequences of that speech.

The issue comes down to proportionality of consequence.

If someone upsets another with something they have said, written or tweeted, should they be fired for their transgression?

In my opinion, no, unless it was a particularly egregious thing to say.

Should you reflect, or in some circumstances be forced to have discussions surrounding what is appropriate, and where other people come from? Perhaps. It’s a matter of proportionality.

On an extreme level, there’s libel and slander. But on a less-extreme level, there’s the pressure and outrage.

That pressure and outrage isn’t always justified.

But sometimes it is. It is merely someone else expressing their free speech rights in response to your own. That is within their rights.

Where we fall down is when we seek mob justice. When our anger leads to disproportionate response.

Where else we fall down is when we shout our free speech and then refuse to listen to what someone else, someone on the fringes, or in a minority, has to say, and insist we know better.

When we do those things, we all lose.

So we must be mindful, not just to what we say, but to how we listen, and how we respond.

Dialogue can make us stronger, but only if everyone is willing to listen.