Issues regarding freedom of speech and “political correctness” are becoming topics of major debate. And based on all that I have seen, I think it is necessary to clarify something very important that is often lost in these discussions and the arguments people try to make.
The term “free speech”, or “freedom of speech”, is used to refer to one of the following ideas.
Laws that prevent the government from censoring what a person has to say. This type of legislation disallows the state from threatening or using punishment by police or other people working for the state in response to a person’s speech. In other words, this describes the freedom from being suppressed by the government.
Censorship and suppression of dissenting opinion can also occur in ways other than by government force. It can also be brought about by intolerant social behaviors of a large portion of the society. This type of freedom is the actual practicable ability to speak opinions freely in your society without active restriction, threats, and ostracism by people not working for the government.
The concepts I have used to describe “Social Tolerance” are of course a bit vague and such suppression can occur in different degrees of severity. But – and I will emphasize this since I rarely see this point acknowledged – just as we can identify and explain how various forms of oppression can still occur against groups of people as a result of common prejudices and behaviors in a society even if the government’s laws are technically egalitarian, we can identify how suppression of free speech can occur even while there are no laws restricting it.
So although this is not an entirely clear-cut issue where someone can say that “there 100% is” or “100% is not” freedom of speech, the fact is that we can see how problems of intolerance occur, then we can condemn it and try to change societal behaviors.
Why Recognizing This Distinction Matters
Recognizing that freedom of speech is a concept that also applies to the public arena, not only government, helps us recognize that harmful suppression of speech can also occur in the public sphere without the use of the state.
If people do not recognize this potential problem, then we will continue to see arguments where people who often try to suppress dissent by manipulative or forceful means (such as job firings, unwarranted accusations, or preventing or trying to prevent speakers from being allowed at your university) argue that they are not suppressing freedom of speech as defined in law and thus assert that “Freedom of speech only protects you from the government, not from the social consequences of what you say!”
In this way many people believe that they have refuted the notion that they could be supporting cultural behaviors that put even good ideas and valid points in danger of censorship by mob rule. The term “consequences” thus even becomes a euphemism for a disturbingly broad range of actions they consider acceptable which have the effect of causing a degeneration of social tolerance for dissent.
If members of a society are not aware that these problems can occur even without government interference, then those positive elements of the society will be eroded. Regardless of how rare truly rational discourse may appear in comparison to irrationality and unpleasantness, freedom and reason can always be made even rarer and even more greatly ignored, hindered, or outright suppressed.