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Friday, February 17, 2023

Free Speech Authoritarianism Is Not the Answer to Censorship

Using the free market to protect speech is a much better solution than state coercion.

Image Credit: iStock

With the rise of Big Tech and government surveillance, defenders of liberty have championed free speech as a core value. With the British government arresting individuals for making edgy jokes and the American government censoring what they consider to be misinformation, civil libertarians have rightfully taken on the fight to defend free speech and the marketplace of ideas.

However, it appears that even the noble cause of fighting for free speech is not safe from being hijacked by statism. Over the past few years, the state has increasingly used free speech as a veil in order to restrict individual freedom. To do this, the state has confused the meaning of free speech.

True free speech is a “negative right”: it is the right to be free from anyone restricting your use of your own body and property to communicate with others. But the state has treated free speech as a “positive right,” acting as if people have a right to communicate using the property of others (even against their will).

This can be seen within the UK where the government has expanded its powers to ensure that “protected philosophical beliefs” cannot be discriminated against under the Equality Act of 2010. Last year, an employment tribunal ruled that it was illegal for an organization to fire a researcher, Maya Forstater, for holding gender-critical beliefs. On the ruling, Forstater stated that: “my case matters for everyone who believes in the importance of truth and free speech.”

In addition to this, there has been a growing call to regulate Big Tech social media platforms in the United States. For example, there is a growing demand by conservatives for free speech laws to be put into place on Twitter. While this has been mitigated by Elon Musk’s recent acquisition of the platform, it serves as an interesting case study on how those who supposedly love freedom are happy for the government to enforce speech.

When companies do something as ridiculous as censor individuals for saying something as simple as referring to an individual by the pronouns they were born with, this should not be an excuse for state-enforced free speech.

For one, this still gives the state the power to determine what is deemed as acceptable to say in society. For example, as the Twitter Files have confirmed, the US government has been largely responsible for a lot of the political censorship that we’ve seen. Conservatives should focus on stopping that, not getting the government even more involved. The state should not have a monopoly over speech, regardless of whether it’s to protect or to prohibit it, as it is bound to make errors either through corruption or negligence.

Secondly, why should freedom of speech come above the freedom of a company to choose who to employ, provide with services, and otherwise associate with? Libertarians recognize how anti-discrimination laws unjustly limit the freedom of property owners to use their property how they see fit. Similarly, they should recognize that laws prohibiting social media companies from discriminating based on opinion should be no exception to this. The state should not play a role in defending what an individual has to say.

As Ayn Rand stated in her talk “The Fascist New Frontier”:

“Freedom of speech means freedom from interference, suppression or punitive action by the government—and nothing else. It does not mean the right to demand the financial support or the material means to express your views at the expense of other men who may not wish to support you. Freedom of speech includes the freedom not to agree, not to listen and not to support one’s own antagonists. A “right” does not include the material implementation of that right by other men; it includes only the freedom to earn that implementation by one’s own effort.”

It is important for those who champion liberty to understand that freedom of speech means freedom from the government meddling with free speech, as the First Amendment prescribes. This does not mean that libertarians cannot oppose individuals being censored or even fired for controversial opinions. They just should not bring the government into it.

Boycotting, striking, and general protest are all ways for freedom fighters to battle against organizations discriminating against individuals for their views. In fact, we’ve seen through Elon Musk purchasing Twitter that free speech can be successfully protected through the free market since Musk has made it a platform of freedom.

Using the free market is a much better solution than state coercion.


  • Jess Gill is the Communications and Social Manager for Ladies of Liberty Alliance (LOLA) and a Hazlitt Fellow with the Foundation for Economic Education.