Protecting actual free speech

Free speech is one of the greatest things we have that on most occasions we take utterly for granted. The fact that I can stand on a hilltop (or the Internet) and denounce the government and all its evil wrongdoings and not be arrested for it is something that I'm immensely grateful for.

And yes, I will fight tooth and nail for your right to free speech even if what you say is disagreeable to me (I'm paraphrasing that thing that Voltaire didn't say).

Because if there's one thing I know about human nature and our long history of being dicks to each other it's that people in positions of power, like toddlers, need structure. Left to their own devices they will act exactly as they see fit and that can and has involved silencing dissenters (or throwing massive tantrums).

This is why we have laws to protect the people from the mighty. The Bill of Rights Act protects our freedom of expression (among other things).

But this is not permission for anyone to say whatever they like with impunity. We also have laws that cover defamation as well as such pleasant occurrences as "inciting racial disharmony". So we have free speech but even in a legal sense it's not absolute. I cannot maliciously lie about someone in order to bring about their downfall like some kind of cartoon villian. Nor can I try and convince people to act unlawfully. Interestingly, our sedition law was repealed several years ago so I'm all okay to encourage insurrection against the state. So I might save that one for a rainy day.

But legality, schmegality. For most people the notion of free speech extends beyond what the state allows you to do. And this is where things get tricky.

For instance, it's been suggested that organised boycotts against companies or businesses that cause offense either in their products or advertising are in some way an assault on freedom of speech. They're not. That's just called "pissing off your customer-base and having to deal with it". 

And that's still the case, even with the media. If some radio jock or columnist spouts forth in a way that's so repugnant to you that it actually makes you angry enough to not listen to that radio station any more, or buy that newspaper then that's just you acting as your conscience dictates. If you go a step further and promote your intention to boycott that media outlet and encourage similar thinking people to do the same, that's just you exercising your own freedom of expression.

There's a difference between encouraging people to behave in a different way and forcing them to. The difference is choice or free will. Pointing a gun at someone removes their free will. Voicing your opinion, even very stridently and agressively does not.

Are there potentially implications with regards to media? My word, yes. There is nothing the media fears more than losing precious advertising revenue. If the great unwashed masses get their knickers in a knot every time they hear an opinion that contradicts their world view or strays far beyond what their moral compass says is right is there not some risk that what is published will become crowd-friendly pap? 

Are we sure that isn't already happening?

But that's not your problem. That's the media's problem. It's not for the individual who stomps their foot and stops listening to talkback (always the best policy, im my opinion) to worry about. They didn't choose for media outlets to be so nervous about advertising revenue and they're not the ones with editorial control. They may, in large numbers, have influence but that's not the same as real power.

As always XKCD explains things brilliantly.

The notion that citizen activism is equivalent to the powers of the state is a very topsy turvy way of interpreting what free speech actually protects. 

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