Saying that free speech is an absolute value that needs to be protected is one thing. But how do we make this happen?
This is what is called the problem of the public sphere, be it constituted by the marketplace, or – in Greek – the agora, or – in Latin – the forum, or whatever we may have now. There used to be specific places where speech would be allowed and expected in a democratic context, depending on the society. Whatever constitutes a public sphere may value from society to society, throughout time, across concrete or digital spaces.
Jürgen Habermas described The Transformation of the Public Sphere as a crucial problem for modern (or rather, post-modern) democratic dialog. The salons, forums, debating halls of days past have been replaced by different structures; also, the previously mentioned institutions were not necessarily equitable and accessible for all. But if we believe in the concept of democracy, the rule of the people, by the people, and for the people, we will actually need to have the people, namely all people in a society, have a chance to have a say free from fear of domination, free from powers that might limit their speech, free from technological or monetary or ability-related or cultural or religious or whatever limiting restrictions.
Free speech only happens if – first – an active space exists where free speech is possible for all without fear of repercussions. But – second – in order to be democratic speech, it does not only need to happen, it needs to be heard, and engaged with. Free speech requires a true dialog, free from constraints other than it be genuine, peaceful, and respectful of all.
How do we create and maintain such a space? The parliaments of the world are the high church of such a forum, but there are many more levels of society where dialog needs to happen. For that to happen, we need to enable a culture of engagement, of curiosity, of true democratic interest in each other, whether we think alike or not. We need true respect for each other, especially in our disagreements, so that we always assume (whether justified or not) the best intentions of all participants to conduct dialog, and direct our disagreements always exclusively at the content and quality of the arguments exchanged rather than at the people making them.
Such a space thus needs to be open for all, uncensored (with extremely few exceptions like direct threats of violence, insincere communication (trolling and spamming), unnecessary verbal abuse, and justifiably criminal (but non-political) content. Access should not be given by the whim of a corporate or political entity, but should be an institution clearly under the guidance of the people, i.e. the government, following the mandate to allow truly free speech (in the US context thus upholding the Virginia Bill of Rights).
I do not believe we have such a system today, which may explain some of the dysfunctions perceived all over the world. We cannot exclusively rely on corporate players (however genuinely well-meaning they may be, even with their legitimate profit motive) and must shield ourselves from hyper-partisan politics and political interests – outside or inside – that aim to harm the people and will work to exploit our free speech laws by spreading their noxious and disruptive propaganda.
Free speech, and free counter-speech, is what separates democracy from darkness. It needs to be cherished, curated, supported and vigorously defended, true to Voltaire’s motto as told by his friend Evelyn Beatrice Hall: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
So say we all?