Updated: Oct 18, 2022
“The right to free speech is more important than the content of the speech”
From all the present foundations of modern society, its most fundamental hallmark is the presence of free speech, and the subsequent right to wield it. From toppling oppressive regimes to starting or ending wars—the power of speech is unparalleled. But speech is more than simply a power to be tapped into. It represents the deep intricacies of a society—its values, its ideals and its principles, and its problems—its prejudice, its discrimination and its systemic inequalities. Other freedoms have limitations, for example, the freedom of assembly and associations can be suspended in times of crisis. Does that mean freedom of speech can have limitations on its use? If so, what limitations? Who decides or enforces them?
First, I look at what speech can be harmful.
The term “hate speech,” while lacking a universally accepted definition, generally refers to any offensive discourse which targets an individual or a group of individuals based on inherent characteristics such as race, religion, sex, gender, etc. Why is hate speech so specially defined? When hate speech is targeted toward a certain group/individual, there occur very tangible and observable effects on the group/individual. While this could occur to any hate speech recipient, these effects are most often only seen among marginalized groups.
A most recent example is that of Andrew Tate, a professional kickboxer turned internet celebrity, who was recently banned from several social media platforms for violating their community guidelines. Tate has historically made overtly sexist and problematic remarks such as:
Victim-blaming: saying #MeToo victims to “bear some responsibility”
Promoting violence against women
Claiming women have “no innate responsibility or honour”
Claiming 40% of his reason to move to Romania was to do with more relaxed sexual assault laws
In addition to above mentioned instances, Tate also has had a history of promoting hegemonic and toxic masculinity ideas and violence.
Supporters of Andrew Tate often claim that his words are “humour”, or at the very least, are just words, and are hence protected by the freedom of speech offered around the world. In making these arguments, it is important to take note of the very real harm caused by problematic speech as highlighted above.
Sexist humour can “directly harm women by eliciting depression, eating disorders, disruption of focused attention, appearance anxiety, and body shame.” It can also incite discrimination from others—in the Tate example, several reports of teachers noticing misogynistic behaviour from middle or high school students with direct references to Tate’s content have been made. This is not mere “offense”—women exposed to sexually objectifying media showed negative self-focus to an extent which disrupted attention and reduced performance on other cognitive tasks—which can be a differentiating factor between getting a certain job, degree or any other goal.
An important item to note with the aforementioned research is the effect this has on men. Men that were exposed to media that was sexist or sexually objectifying toward men showed no such differences—thus establishing a relationship between the harm from discriminatory language and the distribution of privilege and power in society. Women are affected by such media not because they are in any way weaker than men (as some misogynistic arguments might make it seem), but because of historically prevalent and systemically abundant sexism against them in societies all over the world, which has not existed nearly as extensively against men.
The point here is that speech is a force like any other. In the same way as striking someone causes harm and is therefore punishable, hate speech can cause measurable and observable harm to its recipients, and therefore should be punished. An important point to note lies in the situation that men in the above experiment were unaffected when exposed to sexist media—even though the idea for speech regulation lies on underlying harm, women should not be allowed to make sexist remarks against men either, in the same way, that assaulting someone who doesn’t feel hurt still counts as assault.
But who should regulate this speech?
A clear choice would be governments. A major problem, however, is the power and authority held by governments across the world. Take recent anti-monarchy protests in the UK, that led to arrests of dissenters. Governments have been taking a greater role in suppressing dissent, and if tasked with regulating free speech (as they currently do), the freedom to protest and express political dissent vanishes in an instant.
Another choice, as occurred in the case of Andrew Tate, was mediums of information sharing, such as social media companies. Companies like TikTok, Meta and Google banned Tate not for any government laws he may or may not have broken, but for violating their community guidelines—something every user agrees to abide by. A potential problem in this regard would be in their reliance on private companies for advertising revenue, and from governments directly. These organizations have already been accused of being politically biased and swaying to appease private contributors. Further, even though he was banned, Tate amassed a massive following. His content has been viewed over 11 billion times on TikTok alone, and he was searched more times than Donald Trump. Would this incentivise other creators to create and spread such content?
There exist problems with the current regulation of free speech and punishments of their violations—suppression, banning, criminal prosecution, etc.—but the most sustainable solution would be a collaborative one, including both the aforementioned stakeholders, along with the specific groups that were potentially harmed by the piece of speech. Finally, it is important to make note of the fact that restricting free speech is a temporary first step in promoting inclusivity and creating social equality. While speech must be restricted now, a permanent solution requires education, awareness and empathy.