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Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Paradox of Freedom of Speech

Freedom of speech needs to be restricted to protect freedom of speech.

This apparent paradoxical statement is well-founded in philosophy, but it is the cause of much confusion in online debates. Quite regularly, any kind of moderation activity in comment sections or other discussion spaces is likened to censorship, with the argument that the basic human right of freedom of speech needs to be protected.

While it is possible to silence all dissent using moderation, most of the time when freedom of speech is invoked, it is done in the misguided assumption that ultimate freedom is the goal.

It can not be.

What is Freedom of Speech?

freedom of speech is the idea that the ability to freely communicate your ideas to others is both beneficial and valuable to society as a whole.

This idea has been with us since at least the days of the Athens’ democracy, and has been reinforced again and again over the years. These days, the right is called freedom of speech or freedom of expression and it is protected by a large number of national laws and international treaties, including but not limited to article 19 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights and article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

On the other hand, pretty much all laws and most of these treaties also include provisions for the restriction of this (and other) rights. The European Convention on Human Rights is rather explicit:

“The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society […].”

The notion here is that, while the free exchange of ideas is generally beneficial to society and restricting this free exchange is bad, unlimited use of this freedom can cause harm as well, so it needs careful regulation.

Most of these laws and treaties are primarily concerned with limiting the restriction of freedom of speech through governmental intervention, but this freedom has a value in other contexts as well.

When online communities are created and grow, it is a good idea to copy ideas from existing organizations. Freedom of speech as well as the other human rights have a long history, so we do well in trying to respect them in our online spaces, too. We have been rather good at this. But at the same time, the long history also taught us that they need to be restricted in some form or other, and we would do well in learning that lesson, too. In particular related to freedom of speech, we seem to have had trouble with that so far.

But if a right is inherently beneficial and valuable, isn’t it consequently bad to restrict it in any way? This might intuitively seem logical, but it does not hold up to closer scrutiny.

Paradox of Freedom

A freedom—any freedom—inherently includes its own undoing.

There is a common saying that your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins, which explains rather visually how the exercise of your own freedom can be used to limit another person’s freedom. Hence, to protect the freedom of the other person, your freedom needs to be restricted.

In philosophy, this is called the paradox of freedom. Karl Popper describes the concept in his book The Open Society And Its Enemies I (p. 226) as follows:

“The so-called paradox of freedom is the well-known idea that freedom in the sense of absence of any restraining control must lead to very great restraint, since it makes the bully free to enslave the meek. This idea is, in a slightly different form, and with a very different tendency, clearly expressed by Plato.”

As usual with paradoxes in philosophy, this one is primarily a paradox in language. We’re talking about two different types of freedom, namely the freedom of specific individuals as opposed to the freedom of all individuals as a whole, that is, the freedom of society.

Ultimate freedom of a specific individual can require the loss of the freedom of another individual. As soon as we put value into the freedom of more than one individual, we get the problem of having to balance the freedom of one with that of the other. This is a hard problem, and the question of how much some freedoms can be restricted to protect others’ is the main topic for supreme and constitutional courts in various countries. There are, sadly, no simple answers.

While the paradox of freedom is most obvious for physical freedom and assault, the same paradox is inherent in every freedom. Including the freedom of speech. And while it is usually easily understood that physical assault can restrict freedom of speech, it is an important observation that exercising freedom of speech can be used to restrict other freedoms, and even freedom of speech itself.

Restricting Speech

The most obvious way of using one’s freedom of speech to restrict another’s is to not let someone get a word in at all. If you just keep talking, the other person is left to either start a yelling match or simply not speak. Their freedom of speech has been restricted.

As this is universally considered rude and not acceptable, some forms have developed that use a similar pattern for similar goals. If you get a large group of people with similar if not identical ideas, you can have each and every one talk a bit, thus not appearing to be occupying the whole discussion space, but still droning out opposing points.

This is called dogpiling and the (usually) unintentional use of which can be seen in many comment sections. As more and more comments are added, any further constructive comment requires more work to read through all the positions, thus increasing the barrier of entry for most comments except the me too! type. This, too, is a restriction of freedom of speech, as it limits the beneficial effects of the right through exercising the right itself.

The same effect is utilized by derailing, where more or less unrelated discussions are started that flood the discussion space, thus increasing the effort needed to participate constructively.

As I mentioned, these things do not even necessarily happen willfully. We accept some amount of this because we respect the participant’s freedom of speech, but we would be doing well in being careful just how much we allow, as this does, as noted, actively harm the idea behind freedom of speech.

This assumption of civility and best intentions of others has been used by those who willfully want to undermine the free exchange of ideas, though.

The technique of a Gish Gallop refers to flooding the debate space with badly-supported, minor and often reworded claims where opponents would need much longer to refute each single minor claim, again reducing the willingness to engage and driving others out of the discussion.

In recent times, the focus on civil discourse has spawned another technique, called Sea Lioning, in which a debate participant assumes a false air of civility and keeps pestering others with questions, often repeated, and often not reacting to or accepting responses. Not only does this reduce the available discussion space for constructive exchanges, it also quickly becomes a form of harassment.

Harassment itself, even when done in the most civil tone, is probably the starkest form of limiting other people’s freedom of speech. If you have to be afraid that you stating your opinion will lead to you being harassed, and be it by a horde of sea lions following you to your bedroom for a “reasoned discussion”, you are much less likely to express your opinion publicly.

This, much more so than any moderator action, is a danger to freedom of speech.

Protecting Speech

These tactics and techniques are not new. They have been, in one form or another, used in public debates and discussions for a long time. We have already found a solution for these problems, too.

It’s called discussion moderation.

Whenever there is a public discussion, there has to be a person whose job it is to make sure that no participant gets to utilize techniques like I describe above to silence others, and that everyone with good intentions can participate constructively.

This type of moderation is required to protect freedom of speech.

Online, this can have different implementations. As the topics of discussion spaces differ, so does the idea of what does and does not constitute derailing. For example, a discussion among physicists about the Higgs Boson should be allowed to proceed without having to accommodate beginner’s questions, even though beginner’s questions are important and interesting—just not in this place.

The great thing about the internet, contrary to the physical world, is that it is increasingly simple to create your own discussion space. Websites and blogs are easy to set up, and social media makes it even more simple. When your discussion attempt is not welcome in some place because it would derail or otherwise limit the freedom of speech of the participating people, it is trivial to start this discussion in another.


I have not touched on all aspects of how freedom of speech can be limited. Spreading lies, false statements, gas lighting, libel and character assassination are more examples that might be worth mentioning, but I wanted to focus on the general idea, not a detailed list of examples.

Freedom of speech is a valuable and important good for a society, and this also applies to communities online. On the other hand, like any freedom, it is easy to lose. In attempts to protect freedom of speech in our online communities, we all too often forget that unlimited freedom necessarily contains its own undoing. Speech needs to be restricted to some extent to allow for everyone to exercise this basic freedom equally.

We’d all do well in remembering this the next time a moderator asks us to drop a topic in a discussion. It is not as simple as yelling censorship.