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Some Timely Musings on Free Speech and Censorship: A Revisiting
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2014-01-08 11:24:31
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Dr. Emanuel L. Paparella

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

                                                                                     --First Amendment of the United States’ Constitution


In the light of the latest ongoing debates on the right to privacy and the right of free speech provoked by the Snowden revelations on the NSA, I’d like to revisit this thorny issue in the light of the ability of modern means of communication to affect free speech which, depending on how they are used can either enhance or diminish it.

The question arises: are free speech and censorship two sides of the same coin with censorship defined as nothing less than “the suppression of free speech?” Were it that easy! But as Socrates has well taught us, before discussing any relevant issue, never mind solving it, one needs to clearly define one’s definitions.

Let us begin with defining free speech. If one consults the dictionary one reads this definitionof free speech: “The right to express any opinion in public without censorship or restraint by the government.” But is this definition adequate? As Plato put it more than two thousand years ago, no narration is possible if  nobody is listening. Similarly the right to free speech is meaningless if nobody is allowed to listen to my speech. Mandela in jail was undoubtedly granted his right to free speech; that is to say, the right to talk to the walls of his jail at any time. The same for Martin Luther King.

This reminds me of a relevant personal anecdote which took place some forty years ago when I was an assistant professor at the University of Puerto Rico. A strike had been declared by some agitator students who clashed and battled it out with the police which was attempting to keep the university open, as a result no students were attending classes during the ensuing turmoil, and most professors on finding their classroom empty would retire to their offices. At one point of these events, as I proceeded to one of my classes I took notice of a colleague lecturing to an empty classroom. I paused and asked him humorously: “are you lecturing to the walls?” To which the dutiful professor replied: No, I am exercising my right to free speech just as the students are exercising theirs not to listen to my speech.” Food for thought there. Forty years later I am still ruminating on that reply and have not decided whether it was wise or foolish.

How about defining free speech as the right to listen to anybody one chooses, thus modifying the definition to: “Free speech is the right to express any opinion in public without censorship or restraint by the government, and the corresponding right to listen to anybody's expressions in public without censorship or restraint by government.”

But why does censorship have such a negative connotation? Because we are intimidated by the consequences of opposing censorship, or the punishment meted out for that opposition. So we could further enlarge the definition of free speech thus:  “Free speech is the right to express any opinion in public, and the corresponding right to listen to anybody's expressions in public, without being pressured, denied access, arrested, or otherwise punished by the government or a controlling entity.”

Notice that “controlling entity” has been added to government. In fact government is only able to control public space, such as a public square or a public park. The rest of the space is private and controlled by non-government entities who control the means of communication or of expression and are able to suppress what is not to their particular liking. Therefore, both the target of the speech and the publisher of the speech needs to be considered.

Suppose I use a Time magazine-hosted web page to criticize a Twenty Century-released movie. If Time magazine  can suppress my speech for any reason it pleases them (based on the theory that they own the wires and the hosting site), and they have no legal or ethical motivation to not suppress the speech, then in theory, all that Twenty Century would have to do is convince Time that it is in their best interest to remove my site and my comments or even install technological impediments so that my message does not appear. The easiest way to do that is of course to simply cut Time a check exceeding the value to Time of continuing to host my page.

In the absence of any other consideration, most people would consider this a violation of my right to ``free speech'', even though there may be nothing actually illegal in this whole scenario. So if we allow the owner of the means of expression to shut down our speech for any reason they see fit, it's only a short economic step to allow the target of the expression to have undue influence, especially in an age where the gap between one person's resources and one corporation's resources continues to widen. Hence the legal concept of a common carrier, both obligated to carry speech regardless of content and legally protected from the content of that speech. The temptation to hold companies like Time responsible for the content of their customers arises periodically, but it's important to resist this, because there's almost no way to not abuse the corresponding power to edit their customer's content.

So let us once more modify the right of free speech as “The right to express any expression in public, and the corresponding right to listen to anybody in public, without being pressured, denied access, arrested, or otherwise punished by anyone.”

This right is of course not limitless: there are standard exceptions to free speech, for instance ``libel'', ``slander'', ``threats'', and ``community standards.'' To shout fire in a crowded theater and cause a stampede is definitely not an exercise of free speech. So let us again modify our definition of free speech as “The right to express any expression in public, and the corresponding right to listen to  anybody's expressions in public, without being pressured, denied access, arrested, or otherwise punished by anyone, subject to some accepted exceptions.

It should be easily seen that this accurately reflects what we've known as free speech into the Internet domain. We can express, subject to the usual limitations, anything we want on a web page, in an e-mail, or with an instant message, and we are free to receive those expression. Most on-line publications nowadays have comment section, albeit there are limitations, often neglected and abused. Moreover, unlike people behind restrictive national firewalls in countries such as China, where there is no guarantee of free speech, we are largely allowed to access anything we wish.


It goes without saying that nobody is obligated to fund speech they disagree with. For instance, we don't expect people to host comments in Time magazine’s site that are critical about Time magazine, although we may admire magazines who are not afraid of self-scrutiny and constructive criticism. In any case there is a symmetry at work in genuine free speech when it is defined not only in terms of the speakers, but also in terms of the listeners. The above mentioned professor at UPR had defined it in terms of speaker only and thus could rightly be branded as a solipsist: one who talks to himself.

But there is another symmetry that applies to free speech, that of censorship. Once again let us start with the dictionary definition which goes like this: “censorship is the act of censoring.” That is pretty circular and pretty useless. We need to modify it. In a more positive sense we can best understand censorship by understanding how military censorship works in war time. During World War II, for example, letters from soldiers were censored to prevent their falling into enemy hand and reveal the exact location where they had originated. The soldier (the sender) wrote and sent the message home (the receiver) via postal service as a letter (the medium). The censor intercepted it and modified it, if he/she so chose, or simply did not send it on thus preventing that it ever reached home. Therefore modifying the useless dictionary definition we can define censorship as “the act of changing a message, including the change of deletion (complete elimination of the message), between the sender and the receiver.”

Of course, as in military situations, censorship is not always unethical. It is a tool like anything else, it can be used to accomplish good or evil. But like war, censorship must be used sparingly, and only when truly necessary, for it to remain ethical and respectful of free speech.

And now we come to the crux of the matter: the role of the middleman. Newspapers often receive a press release, but they may process, digest, and editorialize on the basis of that press release, not simply run the press release directly as sent. The Internet grants astonishing new capabilities to the middlemen. How do we untie this Gordian knot?  There is a simple criterion that can be applied and it is via this question: do both the sender and the receiver agree to use this information middleman? If so, then no negative censorship is occurring. This seems intuitive; newspapers or magazines aren't really censoring, they're just being the media.

But there is a further consideration and it is this: one can look at this media exercise as middlemen as not being censorship only as long as the middlemen are being truthful about what sort of information manipulation they are performing. You could equally say that it is impossible to characterize how a message is being manipulated because a message is such a complicated thing once you take context into account. So, the sender, the receiver, and the middleman will invariably defend their best interests. It takes the agreement of all three to function.

For example, if a news site runs two articles, one for a position and one against it, and some syndication user only runs one of the stories, you might claim that this distorts the meaning of the original articles taken together. That may be so, but if the original news site was worried about this occurring, perhaps those stories should not have been syndicated, or perhaps they should have been bound more tightly together, or perhaps this isn't really a distortion. Syndication implies that messages will exist in widely varying contexts. The really important point here is to agree that the criterion is basically correct.

So, in light of all this the definition of censorship needs to be modified to: “Censorship is the act of changing a message, including the act of deletion, between the sender and the receiver, without the sender's and receiver's consent and knowledge.” That is to say, censorship occurs when somebody interrupts or interferes with the medium such that a message is tampered with while traveling from the sender to the receiver. The motive may change but the act itself remains one of censorship.

Finally, we need to ask the question: what is the critical difference between the definition of free speech and that of censorship we have arrived at? It appears that free speech has to do with the rights of the sender and the receiver (the endpoints), while censorship is defined in terms of control over the medium.

There are many methods of suppressing free speech and exercising censorship. They tend to occur through political or legal means. Someone is thrown in jail for criticizing the government, and the police exert their power to remove the controversial content from the Internet. On the receiver's side, consider China, which is an entire country whose government has decided that there are publicly available sites on the Internet that will simply not be available to anybody in that country, such as The Wall Street Journal. Suppressing free speech does not really require a high level of technology, just a high level of vigilance, which all law enforcement requires anyhow.

Censorship, on the other hand, as we have learned from the Snowden revelations, whatever one’s stand may be on those revelations, nowadays takes primarily technological forms. Since messages flow on the Internet at speeds vastly surpassing any human's capabilities to understand or process, technology is being developed as we speak that attempts to censor Internet content.

Censorship is primarily technological, and thus technological answers need to be found to prevent it, making it politically or legally unacceptable. Suppression of free speech, on the other hand, is primarily political and legal. To win that battle political and legal power will need to be brought to bear. It is a thorny issue and not likely to get any simpler over time, but certainly an issue impinging on democracy and political freedom requiring unceasing vigilance.

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