Free Speech vs. Licentious Speech (Part I)

Recently, there has been a lot of gab on the internet about “freedom of speech” in relation to various platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and the like, which are owned by progressives, restricting or denying access to conservatives and others expressing non-progressive opinions.

The most recent cause célèbre on this issue — I was tempted to write cause macabre — regards the discussion forum called “Gab,” which has recently been rejected by PayPal and also a hosting service, for being a repository of repulsive opinions, mostly of the white supremacist, anti-Jew sort.

As usual, many conservatives of the confused sort are out there demanding justice on the grounds that such restrictions constitute a violation of the right to freedom of speech, i.e., censorship (usually spelled or pronounced as “censorship!“). These people fail to recognize the distinction between private property and government policy. The right to freedom of speech relates not to having access to other people’s microphones, living rooms, or internet forums (which would violate those others’ property rights), but rather to being unfettered by the government in the expression of one’s unorthodox views.

Property rights and free speech rights are not in conflict. Your right to speak your mind does not override my right to use, or to limit the use of, my microphone, living room, or internet forum as I see fit. It merely insures that you may speak your mind on your own space, or in a location offered to you voluntarily by others, without interference by the State, which is to say without being assailed by government-instituted thought police.

Frankly, I am almost tired of repeating these arguments. You either believe in private property rights for everyone or you don’t. That’s my answer to conservatives who demand that Facebook et al allow conservative expression on their platform by saying, “You either believe in free speech for everyone or you don’t.” Believing in free speech for everyone does not, and must never, mean stealing other people’s property in order to exercise your “right” to speak. You don’t owe me your private platform, anymore than I owe you my private platform. And that principle does not change just because, as an advertising ploy, I invite people to use my platform by saying “Everyone welcome!” That’s promotion. It does not literally mean everyone can do whatever they like on my platform, and I am legally obliged to allow them to do so, even if what they are doing completely violates my beliefs. (By analogy, a restaurant might say, as promotion, “We aim to please.” That does not mean they are legally obliged to provide me with any and every pleasure I might demand of them, on the grounds that “After all, they claimed their goal was to please me!”)

Those who object here that Google and Facebook claim a certain legal status which implies that they will not “censor” content, so they have to abide by that, are exacerbating the very problem they are concerned about. The danger with these internet platforms, search engines, and the like, is not that “they are too big” to be allowed to decide who should or shouldn’t be permitted to use their services. The danger is that the more they become entwined in government regulations and tacit “understandings” with the State about the societal function or “social value” of their products, the greater the likelihood that the people doing the censoring will not be private individuals asserting their rights to private property and conscience, but government authorities asserting illegitimate controls over both private property and freedom of speech.

A private company, as long as it has no government-protected monopoly, has the right (property right) to grant or deny access to its services to anyone it wishes, no matter how stupid its reasons.

It is the sense that Google and other such companies are increasingly embedded in government-protected status that causes the problem here. If the government controls the internet, then denying access based on political perspective is genuine censorship and a denial of freedom of speech. If private companies own pieces of the internet (however large those pieces), and choose to deny access to entities they don’t like, that’s their business, whether we like their choices or not.

The way to protect free speech is not to force private companies to give up their property rights according to some arcane government regulatory regime (“But you said you were not a publisher!” etc.), but to keep government out of private business operations, period, and to do so on private property grounds. That’s the fight we need to have.

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