Free Expression and Free Speech Definitions Podcast Transcript
The Bright Team
The Bright Team • Jan 24

Free Expression and Free Speech Definitions Podcast Transcript

Breaking the Feed, Social Media: Beyond the Headlines

This episode explores the core issues around the freedom of expression and free speech. Hosts discuss the complexity and different interpretations of these concepts, as well as the changing perception of free speech over time. They differentiate between freedom of expression and free speech, highlighting the broader protection of expression in various forms. The concept of the digital public square is examined, along with the challenges of regulating online communication. The episode also delves into the idea of free speech absolutism and the importance of nuance in discussions about free speech.

Key Takeaways:
  • The freedom of expression and free speech are complex concepts that can mean different things to different people.
  • Freedom of expression encompasses various forms of communication beyond speech, while free speech refers specifically to the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
  • Nuance is crucial in discussions about free speech, as it allows for a deeper understanding of different viewpoints and the limitations of absolute freedom.

Taryn Ward  Hi, I'm Taryn Ward,

Steven Jones  and I'm Steven Jones,

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TW.  and this is Breaking the Feed, Social Media: Beyond the Headlines

SJ.  We're taking a closer look at the core issues around social media, including the freedom of expression or free speech, is it sometimes known to better understand the role that social media plays in our everyday lives and society? This episode will explore some basic and general definitions to facilitate our discussions around free speech and freedom of expression.

TW.  We often start our podcast with a question. So we'll start today with the following. What do we mean when we talk about the freedom of expression or free speech? First, a quick anecdote. There are many variations on this one, but it's a good place to start. 

TW. Let's back up to the 80s. So Ronald Reagan is sitting with Mikhail Gorbachev and raises the issue of free speech. Hurray, really popular, I'm sure. Free speech, she said, means that any man can walk up to the White House and yell, Ronald Reagan is an idiot, Ronald Reagan is an idiot and not be arrested. 

Mikhail Gorbachev leaned forward and said, but of course, we have the same thing in the Soviet Union. Any man can walk up to the Kremlin and shout, Ronald Reagan is an idiot, and not be arrested.

 SJ.   I love that story. That you're sharing and started with, Yeah, it's brilliant. And it's not often that you can work Ronald Reagan into a into a podcast, and I'm happy about it. But that one, he's absolutely brilliant.

TW.  Yeah, I thought it'd be an interesting place to start because, you know, it sort of frames out. We talk about freedom of expression and free speech. And these are, in some ways, really simple concepts that we all think we have a grasp of, but actually, when we start to dig in, they can mean really different things to different people. 

SJ.  Yeah, I mean, I guess that's exactly. That's exactly right. That's the beauty of jokes, right? They pull out the absurd because, obviously, you're allowed to say, in Soviet Russia, that Ronald Reagan was an idiot, it was the government line. It's interesting because Reagan sort of implied there, I guess, that there wasn't really, err, controls on what people can say in the US, which is also not entirely true, right? I mean, I remember the story of the Trump motorcade that was going past that woman who was cycling. And she made an unfortunate hand gesture and was subsequently fired from her job. So whilst you won't necessarily be arrested, you might suffer the consequences of your action. Like I mean, it was for sure true that despite the fact that the main newspaper in the Soviet Union was called Truth, saying what you really thought was probably not advisable, as it probably is still not entirely advisable. Let's be honest, if you criticise the war in Ukraine in Russia, you're going to, you're going to suffer the consequences.

TW.  Yes. And to be clear, there are things that if you walked up to the White House and said you would be arrested for, so it's it's a great story, very unlikely to be true. So I just want to put that out there. We're not sharing the story, for its truth value is not what's happening here. We're sharing it because, yeah, that's probably should have started with that. Not a true story. Very unlikely. You're anyway, there are all kinds of variations on this one. But but I'm sharing it now really, to illustrate a series of points around the nature of free expression free speech. And I think it's a great one to keep in mind as we continue talking through our discussion of what is allowed and what isn't allowed. So you know, if we're going to think about the White House, what can you run up to the White House and say, what can you not run up to the White House and say, and I think it's a it's a good one to keep in mind as we walk through. 

TW.  So, freedom of expression and free speech are often used interchangeably without consideration of whether there's a distinction with a difference or not. And this is increasingly the case recently, where you can see that free speech is being used more broadly and universally while US courts are starting to use free expression more consistently. So it's this sort of weird change over where we're seeing this, you know, bleeding through in ways we didn't even 10 years ago, really. And in some cases works, it makes a lot of sense, because there is a significant amount of overlap. But if we want to seriously take it down to brass tacks and come to terms with these issues, we need to really understand not just where they overlap but where they part ways. So for our purposes in this series, we'll use the freedom of expression except where we're talking specifically about the First Amendment in the US Constitution. We decided to approach it this way because free speech is more specifically defined, and it can be a little bit misleading on its face. So free speech, when we use it is going to refer to the free speech clause in the First Amendment of the US Constitution. which says the following, Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. Again, this is not as simple as it sounds. 

TW.  It's worth noting now that free speech is not even just about speech, it applies to other forms of expression where some recognisable idea is being conveyed or being attempted to be conveyed. So the right to wear black armbands to school to protest or war is a great example, contributing money to political campaigns. In some cases, burning flags and protests and even music without taxed in dance may qualify in some circumstances. So again, the key here is whether there's some recognisable idea that's being communicated. So when we think about free speech on this podcast, we're not referring to speech speech, we're referring to the free speech clause that sort of broadly includes a lot of different forms of expression.

SJ.  This is really interesting issue, isn't it? And I, what what worries me about the sort of bleed over of freedom of speech in into other contexts, is it seems to be very heavily tinged with right-wing, or extreme right-wing tendencies, like, you know, you're you're trying to suppress me and my ideas, and I should be able to say, whatever I like, in the context of social media, this was actually one of Elon Musk's big points when he was complaining about Twitter when it was Twitter and not "X" and, and has continued to be a big thing for him. It's sort of confusing to me that people sort of say one thing about freedom of speech but actually mean something else. Which is which seems to be quite often. "I'm allowed to say whatever I want, but you should shut up". And you know, that that really sort of bothers me. And you've you've we've seen it in Canada during the these sort of, and I'm gonna put this in air quotes, "freedom protests", where the the truckers occupied Ottawa. And you see it in the UK as well. But it does seem to be that the right-wing, for some reason, has latched on to freedom of speech. And it's sort of pervaded context where, where it shouldn't really be, and I'm happy that you you decided to focus, free to freedom of speech, and we're talking about specifically the First Amendment. But what do you think, Taryn, you're an American living in the UK.

TW.  I think that's a really interesting point. And it's, it's always so interesting to hear people outside of the US talk about free speech because, of course, I grew up in the US, and that is my framework. And, you know, I went to law school, obviously, a long time ago. But even then, that was not how we thought about the First Amendment. The First Amendment and free speech in particular, was really where the left played, you know, when you look back at some of the draft cases, when you look back at some of the limits that came in after 9/11, it was very much the opposite. It was the left who was saying we need to protect and broaden free speech protections. And it was the right who was saying, no, no, no, we need to, you know, put some of these restraints in. And so it's interesting now to see that sort of flipped on its head. And I think in a later episode, it would be worth diving into how that happened, how we got here, in and how that's likely to progress. 

TW.  But I think Well, that wasn't one of the reasons I separated free speech and free expression. It is true that I think it's more politicised or that may not be fair, I think free speech is politicised in a different way than free expression is. And it's more volatile. So that's a that's a good place to actually talk about the freedom of expression, which is something slightly different. So if we think of free speech is a freedom from government restriction. So remember, we said that the text is Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, we can think of the freedom of expression as a more generalised principle. So this is something now that is so core to who we are as humans that it's protected from everyone in everything. And hopefully, for us in this series, freedom of the press, in terms of free expression is treated separately. It's related, but it's dealt with differently. Whereas in the US, free speech has sort of come to encapsulate free speech and free press in ways that can be tough to pick apart. So often, these two rights, free speech, freedom of expression, are interpreted to provide the same or some similar level of protection anyway. And I think that's important to say. So we're not talking about two completely different things here. But the framing of the right means that there's a different process, and understanding this helps us to understand, when we look at specific examples, how European and American courts can sometimes reach different conclusions, why regulators, therefore, sometimes use different approaches and why this has all become so complicated.

SJ.  Right. complicated is a is a nice way of putting it, I think. But this series because it is a complex topic with with so many facets we're going to build on on previous episodes as we go. And we'll assume that our our listeners have already have enough underlying knowledge to follow independently or listened to previous podcasts. And so we can avoid subjecting regular listeners to the same information every episode.

TW.  Yes, yeah, hopefully, hopefully that makes it a little bit easier and more exciting for everyone. As long as we're talking about definitions, another set that's worth getting out of the way concerns the popularisation of the term public square. Elon Musk, again, you make an appearance. So so often, he talks about this concept a lot. And whether he's conflating Habermas public sphere and the traditional Town Square analogy, the idea of a digital public square is effectively the idea that online spaces function is areas for public discourse. The core idea here is about recognising and preserving open dialogue in the free exchange of ideas. The problem with this, of course, is that what is said in the public square has always been subject to regulation, at least in terms of when, where, and how that message is communicated and has been both provided for and protected by the Government. So Habermas says the idealised version of a public sphere is more complex, but I can guarantee it didn't look anything like the hellscape that has become Twitter, sorry, "X".

SJ.  It was his right to freedom of expression. You want everything called "X" in your entire life! Just carry on! How do you distinguish anything in the end? Okay, this town square thing? Yeah, in theory, the internet is a great place to have communication, your first series here, that was the that was the main thesis in the early part of all the episodes we did was was like, people have a need to communicate, it's our superpower. We're very cool animals. But one of the things which we do which is really cool is communicate very complex things to a large number of people. The Internet allows us to do that. But unfortunately, without rules, without guidelines and guide rails, people just scream into the void at one another. I mean, their not even screaming at one another very often, they're very often just screaming, it's like Primal Scream therapy, for jerks. A discussion requires two way communication a bit like us, right? 

TW.  Yes, the poster children for discussion

SJ.   We'll talk about literally anything, and the audience misses out on a lot of it because, you know, we do it when we're not actually online. But you know, this is this is the problem. I mean, the people aren't discussing, because there aren't guidelines. And, and, and, you know, back to another one of our previous themes, which is the role the algorithm plays in what you see if the discussion, if you turn up in the public square, you can listen to everybody who's speaking and vote with your feet, walk over there, or walk over there and speak to Speaker's Corner in London, you can decide who you want to listen to, and who you want to heckle until you want to agree with. But social media companies, through their algorithms and their financial imperative to sell ads, are deciding what you actually get to listen to. So it's not even free. You're not making the decisions. This is an illusion of choice, which I think has helped build that, you know, dysfunctional hellscape. Surely?

TW.  Building on your primal scream point, I think, you know, there's some evidence that that can be a really healthy exercise, and it's fine for people to do that if they find it is a healthy thing for them to do. It's just that that never would have been allowed really to happen in a town square. You know, there are certain concert venues, I've certainly attended some concerts, that is a lot of screaming. And that's fine. But it's a privately hosted thing, where you're making the decision to go there and can leave if you want to, this idea of having a town square, or a public square, is is really supposed to be I think, more about a place where everyone is welcome to go. And the experience isn't so horrible that you know, it leaves you, it leaves a whole segment of the population feeling like they're not welcome there. And so I think it's just really thinking critically when when we hear somebody talking about this as a concept, what what are the actual similarities and differences? And you just because it sounds great, doesn't necessarily mean that that that's matching the reality.

SJ.  It's a great marketing line, isn't it? Oh, it's the public square? It's, I mean, it's the same as we talked about it when we discussed the Arab Spring on Twitter is a great marketing line, the role social media plays. The fact is, of course, that a lot of people didn't, in some countries, have access to the internet, and they were doing it entirely different ways. But it didn't stop social media companies taking credit for it. And then, you know, they worked behind the scenes with governments to actually suppress what the governments in those countries considered seditious, you know, discussion? You can't have it both. You shouldn't have it both ways. Obviously, they have been able to have it up until now.

TW.  No, absolutely. So one other quick definition, I think we should get out of the way before we dive in, is sometimes you'll hear people now talk about "free speech absolutist", or "free speech, absolutism". And it's worth clarifying what that actually means, in large part because, much like free speech itself, the definition is not obvious on the face of the phrase. So the so-called "free speech absolutist" come in many forms, lots of varieties. But typically, these beliefs are rooted in a deep distrust of government authority and consists of some variation of these three things. 

  1. There should be no content-based speech restrictions, 
  2. There should be no prior restraint, so no preventing speech or expression before it occurs, and
  3. Any exceptions to free speech should be extremely narrow. 

TW.  So, immediate incitement to violence and true threats, you might be able to address those, but really nothing else. Very few people argue for completely unrestricted speech in all circumstances. And typically, even people who are very vocal about "free speech absolutism", recognise a need to restrict defamation and obscenity. The term is also sometimes used to describe people who are simply committed to protecting expression, even when it's offensive and unpopular. So it really does cover a wide spectrum of positions.

SJ.  Yeah, and this is where it gets really grey, isn't it? My personal belief is that you might want to say something that is offensive, deeply offensive to me. And most of the people that I know, you probably should have the right to say it, as long as it's not, you know, egregiously untrue, personal attack, or a call to violence. But there are, there are limits. And seems to me, that society is struggling to find those limits, it's like, there's a push to really prioritise people's feelings. And if you say something that I find really offensive, then then, you know, that's like being violent towards me, which is unfortunate. And obviously, you know, people's feelings are sort of important, important, but also a robust discussion is really important. And, you know, we have this amazing gift as a species that we can communicate, and we need to be able to do that. And where do you draw the line, this absolutism implies a lack of nuance in the same way, as you shouldn't say anything which offends anyone ever, right? The world is full of nuance, and we need to focus on that. Everything is much more complicated than people want it to be. Right? Everybody wants simple definitions and things which they can take and run with and that really worries me. And the fact that so much of this conversation occurs now online, which is the worst, often the worst way of having nuanced conversations. Umm, It's a bit scary. I think.

TW.  That's a really good point. I think this, the nuance part is really important to all this. And I do understand, to an extent, the appeal of of something that is really clear because this area of the law is so complex and so hard. And I think more than we're willing to admit, we're all tired. It's been a tough couple of years. Yeah, and so I do understand people being like, I don't have the headspace. You know, I'm not gonna spend the next 12 hours of my life listening to you guys dive in, in this podcast, to all the nuance. I'm just going to say, Yeah, I like free speech. I'm a free-speech absolutist. But actually, even if you identify that way, and even if that's the lesson you're going to draw, there are some tough decisions you'll have to make within those boundaries in terms of, well... that doesn't really mean you think all speech should be allowed all the time. So it's still a line-drawing exercise. And I think it's about doing it in a meaningful and consistent way. And I think one of the things to your point, is about intent, I think is part of getting rid of the nuance. We've wiped away a lot of those considerations. We're all gonna say the wrong thing sometimes. But, But what is the intention behind it? Is the intent to hurt somebody? Is it? Is it to cause a problem? Or is it, you know, that we are trying to be part of the debate and part of a discussion?

SJ.  Yeah, I couldn't agree more. I think that's that that is probably a really good place to leave it. Do we want to have a discussion? I personally, and I think you'd really think, that discussion is the most important thing that we can do. Even if we don't change everybody's minds, the fact that we've all shared our views and everybody has a better understanding of your your viewpoint is already a goal achieved. And and anything which limits that discussion is a bit of a problem, but you know, I do worry about people who say, I really think that people should be able to say whatever they think it so often means, I should be able to say whatever I think and people who think like me should be able to say whatever they think. But that group over there, they're really troublesome and they should not be able to speak at all. Like, that is also, that seems to be at the core of this idea so often. 

TW.  Yes, I think I think it is, and we'll explore that more. In fact, next time, we'll start looking at the history of the freedom of expression in free speech and explore what that history means for the current global and Western frameworks. 

TW.  In the meantime, we'll post a transcript of this episode with references on our website.

SJ.  Until next time, I'm Steven Jones,

TW.  and I'm Taryn Ward.

SJ.  Thank you for joining us for Breaking the Feed, Social Media: Beyond the Headlines.

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