In recent debates about freedom of speech and censorship, it is often claimed that “freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences.” You can say what you want, it is argued, but that doesn’t protect you from facing the consequences of your actions.
As George Takei put it a few years ago:
“‘Freedom of speech’ does not mean you get to say whatever you want without consequences. It simply means the government can’t stop you from saying it.”
It sounds persuasive. But a closer look reveals it is deeply flawed. Why?
Because it is literally impossible to have freedom of speech without freedom from consequences.
You Can Say What You Want, But…
Imagine you are employed at an IT company, and your boss doesn’t believe in climate change. He says to you, “You are free to say whatever you like here, but if you ever talk about climate change, you’ll be fired.”
A few weeks later, you mention it in passing, and you lose your job.
Is your freedom of speech being protected? Of course not. Freedom of speech is not about letting people physically utter words. It is about protecting them from consequences that are imposed in order to control or restrict what can and can’t be spoken about.
In this scenario, it would be nonsensical to say that your freedom of speech was protected, but you simply weren’t protected from the consequences of what you said.
Freedom From Consequences
If you’re not yet convinced, apply the same logic to ‘freedom of expression’ or ‘freedom of religion’ and you quickly see how it falls apart.
Freedom of expression: you can write comics about whatever you like, but we’ll shoot you if you write something that offends us.
Freedom of religion: you can practice your religion if you like, but just be aware that we’ll kill you if you do. Remember, ‘freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from consequences!’
That’s completely ludicrous.
Or, “You’re free to insult Islam on your blog, but we’ll imprison and whip you if you do.” That’s what we call a textbook violation of freedom of speech, precisely because it imposed consequences in order to restrict and control what people can and can’t say.
By definition, freedom of speech must include freedom from consequences.
Freedom From All Consequences?
At this point, someone might object, “But freedom of speech doesn’t protect you from all the consequences of your actions!”
And yes, that’s true. Freedom of speech doesn’t protect us from the natural consequences of what we say. If you speak rudely, people won’t like you. That’s just a natural consequence, and the law won’t protect you from it!
But freedom of speech is about protecting people from the kind of consequences that are imposed in order to restrict, control, or manipulate what people can and can’t talk about.
It’s not talking about natural consequences, it’s talking about things like expelling people from a University because of something they said on a private Facebook account. It’s enforcing what ideas can and can’t be spoken about.
In those situations, ‘freedom of speech’ must mean ‘freedom from consequences.’
Different Kinds of Consequences
The confusion around this ‘freedom from consequences’ idea stems from a failure to distinguish between the (1) natural consequences of an action and (2) artificial consequences that are imposed with the purpose of restricting or controlling what people say.
In the former category (1), if your speech breaks the code of conduct at your workplace, they have perfectly legitimate grounds to fire you without violating your freedom of speech.
In the latter category (2), if an employer fires you because they disagree with something you said on some political topic unrelated to your work, they have violated your freedom of speech.
So yes, of course freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from natural consequences. But it intrinsically and categorically must mean freedom from consequences imposed to restrict or penalise people simply for holding and expressing ideas.
Now, to be clear, freedom of speech is not an unlimited and unrestricted right. Some kinds of speech are (rightfully) illegal, such as defamation and hate speech.
So by all means, if someone is breaking the law by their speech, they must face the consequences.
But if you simply disagree with or are offended by what someone says, then denying them a platform or imposing other consequences to punish them is denying their freedom of speech.
Asking The Right Questions
When it comes to the debate around censorship, the question is, what kinds of speech should be allowed, and which should not? What kinds of speech do we want to protect, and which do we not? What kinds of speech should be illegal, and which should not?
Those are complicated questions, and I don’t presume to have the answers to them. But they are the right questions to be asking.
So can we please do away with the nonsense about ‘freedom from consequences’?