I recently completed an academic assignment concerned with what grounds the state could give to censor unsavoury subject matter for the moral protection of its citizens. The conclusion that I reached, was that there are very few instances in which the state could, in my view, rightfully exercise its power in censoring speech. The debate surrounding free speech is one that has brewed for decades and will no doubt continue to do so for decades to come. Yet, the debate has recently become prominent in my native United Kingdom.
Prominent far-right, depending on how you view him, activist Tommy Robinson has recently had his public profiles shutdown by Instagram and Facebook for what they said were repeated violations of the terms of service. This had many of his supporters enraged as they held that Robinson has been wrongfully silenced and that free speech laws only apply to views that are favoured, or perhaps, politically correct. But, having agreed to the ToS upon signing up to both of these platforms, if violations occurred, it must be the case that the social media companies had every right to terminate his account.
Robinson would probably be the first to admit, as would the majority of social media users, that the ToS are something that one just accepts without really bothering to read them. Yet, this is not the focus of this piece. One of the central arguments Robinson and many of his supporters are citing is that his right to free speech is being foregone simply because the liberal-left do not like what he is saying.
The retort to this argument is very simple but for the sake of paying lip-service to Robinson and his followers, we shall indulge it none the less. Liberal arguments for free-speech owe a great deal to John Stuart Mill, who’s famous Harm Principle acts as the foundation for many free-speech defences. Mill holds that;
‘there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.’ (Mill, 1978, 15)
Thus, all speech, no matter the subject, should be protected by free-speech legislations. This enables us to have ‘absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral or theological,’ which in turn ensures that we do not allow ourselves to fall into a ‘slumber of decided opinion.’ What Mill meant by this was that if we prevent speech which we disagree with from being uttered, then it follows that our own convictions are made weaker as there is nothing to challenge them. This realm of decided opinion is dangerous and could lead to complacency in the face of ideological threat.
It is certainly true that Mill casts the net far and wide when concerned with what should and should not be protected by free speech. But this net does not cover, nor does it wish to protect, speech which causes actualharm to people. Mill famously illustrates this point by stating that it is acceptable to claim that corn dealers starve the poor if such a view is expressed in print. It is not acceptable to make such statements to an angry mob, ready to explode, that has gathered outside the house of the corn dealer. Does this yet ring any bells in the case of Mr Robinson?
Of course, Mill was not writing at the time of tweets, status updates and selfies, but it is still possible to draw meaning from his works in a contemporary setting. One could argue that an angry mob no longer needs to be outside the house of a corn dealer to be viewed as threatening. The Twittersphere and Facebook groups are certainly viewed by many as having the power to destroy lives over the internet.
Thus, it seems the argument could be made that Mill would extend his analogy to social media. By this, I do not mean to say that any distasteful views on political, social or cultural issues are an incitement to violence generally. But what I do mean to say is that social media witch-hunts certainly have the power to destroy lives which can cause actualharm. Granted, not in the same manner of the angry mob with pitchforks and certainly more hashtags.
Although analogous parallels could be drawn between social media and the corn dealer, I wish to stress that Mr Robinson is and should always be entitled to the same free speech protection as every other citizen. On that subject, if Robinson would afford me the luxury of offering him my council for a moment, I would suggest setting up shop next to the religious fundamentalists that proclaim the end is nigh who litter city centres up and down the country. I believe he would be right at home amongst such esteemed company.
Returning to Mill and the corn dealer, it is clear to me that one could certainly make the philosophical case in support of Facebook and Instagram in their decision to remove his public profile.
A simpler argument can be made in support of Facebook and Instagram. The social media giants owe Robinson, nothing. This is not an attack on free speech, in fact far from it. The publicly listed companies only have responsibility to its shareholders, not to Robinson, or any of its other users for that matter. If Robinson violated their ToS and did not comply to repeated warnings, then he only has himself to blame. Robinson has every right to his free speech; the social media giants are not denying him that. He has every right to create his own public platform and create his own audience in order to spread his message. On the same token, private social media companies are also entitled to their freedom of speech. Thus, they have every right to prevent him from using their platform to catalyse a devoted group of online vengeful-vigilantes ready to destroy the lives of his ideological opponents.
Tommy Robinson’s banning from social media is not a free speech issue and people must stop framing it as one. Nobody is stopping him from speaking his so-called truth, and if this were the case, I would be one of the first people marching to his defence. Despite disagreeing with many of the central components of Robinson’s ideology, the protection of free speech transcends any level of disagreement. The late-great Christopher Hitchens puts my own thoughts on this matter into words with great clarity here;
“The right of others to free expression is part of my own. If someone’s voice is silenced, then I am deprived of the right to hear. Moreover, I have never met nor heard of anybody I would trust with the job of deciding in advance what it might be permissible for me or anyone else to say or read. That freedom of expression consists of being able to tell people what they may not wish to hear, and that it must extend, above all, to those who think differently is, to me, self-evident.”
There are many things spoken in the public realm that are disagreeable to me, it is also very likely that many of my utterances are disagreeable to others. Yet, this is the beauty of living in a liberal society, everyone is afforded the luxury of freedom of speech. With that being said, this social media issue is not one of free speech therefore I needn’t go into any more detail here.
Since I said this issue could be summarised simply, I shall do so now. A company can do as it pleases with users that violate its ToS. This is not a case to do with free speech and unfavourable views, but instead one of following a company’s rules. If you frequently fail to follow the rules, then the company has every right to prevent you playing the game.