A brief tale that might illustrate some of the difficulties of free speech absolutism as an ideology:
A few years back, a gallery called LD50 invited a range of far/alt-right and anti-immigrant speakers to address a conference. This drew protests from antifascists, who felt that the words of speakers were likely to have harmful consequences in the real world, as illustrated by the fact that Brett Stevens, once of the invited speakers, had been cited as an inspiration by the fascist mass-murderer Anders Breivik.
These protests were then counter-protested by one Daniel “DC” Miller, who held up a sign saying “the right to openly discuss ideas must be defended.” Fair enough: I don’t agree with the kind of free speech absolutism that says free speech is an absolute good that must be upheld above all else, without any regard for other considerations, but I have some respect for anyone who can stick to it as a consistent principle.
Earlier this year, when Nina Power – who, just to stress, I have a lot of respect for based on her past writings and activity, even as I find myself strongly disagreeing with some of her recent decisions – revisited some of these issues, she phrased it as “the question of what can be discussed, and where, and by who. Can we all talk about anything everywhere?”
Well, now we have an answer of sorts. Miller and Power are now raising funds to sue one of their critics, an antifascist named Luke Turner, for libel. Apparently they feel that Luke Turner calling Miller a nazi is the sort of speech that could have harmful consequences in the real world, and so the law should be used to prevent Turner from being able to talk about his belief that Miller is a nazi anywhere. In other words, Turner’s right to openly discuss his ideas on this subject must be suppressed, not defended.
Being generous, I hope that this will be a moment of learning and growth for Miller. After all, now that he’s not a free speech absolutist anymore, perhaps now would be a good time for him to rethink the LD50 argument, because if he finds Turner’s speech to be so harmful and distressing that he wants to prevent it, then maybe he’ll be better able to to understand and appreciate why other people might want to prevent fascist and anti-immigrant speech and organising?
Because the alternative would be for him to end up at a position where free speech is good and must be defended if it involves fascists and white nationalists saying horrible things about immigrants, but bad and must be suppressed if it involves antifascists saying horrible things about him and his friends. Readers can draw their own conclusions about how to characterise that sort of position. But be careful about saying them out loud, because you might get sued.