Let’s Talk: Free Speech

//So I’ve decided to have longer discussion/opinion based posts again. I know I shied away from politics and removed all of the political posts from my blog a few years ago, but I’m a political junkie so it’s hard to stay away for long. I’m going to try and relate these issues to books somehow.//

There has been so much going on on book twitter about diversity, problematic books, and free speech. Beyond the bookish community, there are also issues of when dissent is protected or not, especially for this White House administration. This debate keeps rearing its head over and over again…

…So, let’s talk.

What is Free Speech?

Contrary to popular belief: free speech does not give you the right to say anything you want carte blanche. It never has.

Free speech has always been an issue of limits on the state. Having free speech means that no government will persecute you for expressing your thoughts or ideas.

That is the obvious side of the issue. Ideally, all of your speech is protected from retaliation by the government.

The subtle side is where things get a little murky, because, from that initial ideal, the umbrella of free speech has been expanded and thinned at various points in history.

One area where it expanded is in the case of violence. Free speech laws also protect you from any kind of physical retaliation from private citizens. It protects against mob justice.  So, for example, if a group of people don’t like your speech and they burn down your house: the hammer of the law should come down. The government is obligated to come to your aid in ways such as investigating and prosecuting perpetrators. This is, of course, the ideal (it is not always enforced).

Now under the umbrella of free speech, there is also hate speech. Hate speech is limited up to a point. In terms of hate speech, the question isn’t about what is being said but whether it incites violence. That is why it is perfectly legal for the KKK to have public marches, or for the Westboro Baptist Church to be their disgusting selves. They are legally protected under the free speech umbrella (again, from the government) so long as they don’t incite immediate violence.

The key word there is “immediate,” but we’ll just side-eye that for now.

This is what distinguishes a hate crime from hate speech. In a hate crime, some physical act was made to harm and/or terrorize someone. The issue being prosecuted is the physical violence. Any hate speech associated with that is just evidence for a motive which can, in some states, create harsher sentencing.

There are also times when certain speech is litigated and prohibited by the government. The most famous example comes from the case Schenck v. United States; the phrase “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater” should sound familiar. Schenck’s legacy is the “clear and present danger” litmus test for when speech should be limited (for more see Brandenburg v. Ohio and Abrams v. United States).

Now this subtle area is where I think most people get confused.

The clear and present test is supposed to, again, control how a government reacts to speech it does not like. Social and personal repercussions are not part of free speech.

Yes, you can lose your job for saying the wrong thing, especially if it is plastered around social media. That is completely legal under free speech laws (at least in the US). If I decided to trash my boss on social media, I could (and probably would) get fired and have no grounds to take legal action.

In terms of politics in the workplace: if you are in the private sector you can still be fired for your political views. Often private sector employees have less protection than public sector employees. It also depends on the state you live in and what anti-retaliation laws exist there.

Again, unless there is specific anti-retaliation or anti-discrimination laws in your state, you can have private/personal repercussions for your speech so long as it’s not from the government.

So where does censorship come in?

Simple enough: it’s a no-no for the government.

The end.

…Oh, wait… maybe I should go on?

Here’s the thing, like policing “free speech,” censorship is limited to groups of authority, namely a government (although other types of organizations and the media can fall into this category as well).

And like free speech, there are many loopholes for the government to use.

For example, take porn. Pornography often falls under “soft censorship” meaning you do have access to it (especially if you have internet) but technically you need to be at least 18 years old (in the US) to legally view it. That is a law mandated by governmental bodies that is perfectly legal. (Fun side note: my completely adorable law professor in college was an expert on obscenity law… you’d never know it from the look of him!)

Of course, there are many other types of censorship, both hard and soft, that fall below government-level actions.

If you write for a newspaper the editors reserve the right to alter what you’ve written (unless you’ve negotiated that ahead of time). Whether they are changing your words for length or for content they do have that right. A library (especially a private one) can refuse to carry a book they don’t like. Schools can ban books. This is all perfectly legal.

I’m not going to belabor the point, I think it is pretty apparent, but I do want to hit one more thing while we’re on the subject:

Not every instance of speech being denied is a case of censorship.

Let’s just look at the publishing world. From my brief stint in it, I can tell you publishers get tons and tons of submissions and pitches all. the. time.

And the truth is, most of those books (even really good ones) are not acquired.

A publisher deciding not to publish your work is not censorship because you are not entitled to be published.

On that note: A reader deciding not to read your book is not censorship, because you are not entitled to be read.

Free speech means you have the right to talk to a wall, not that you deserve an audience. #MyTwitterAccount

Let’s move this a little closer to Book Twitter.

The main issue here is problematic books. I’m just going to use the biggest example (since people are still harassing the original poster about it): The Black Witch by Laurie Forest.

Now, I’m going to be transparent here and just say I’ve never even heard of this author before this controversy, and probably would have never picked up her book before the review in question came out. Tbh, the jacket copy just sounded like it wasn’t the type of fantasy I enjoy.

I will also say that I think the original review did a good job of using evidence to prove the point. A lot of people are criticizing the use of quotes to make the book seem bad: as a high school English teacher that just sounds like using textual evidence to prove your point.

And, trust me, I know how quotes can be cherrypicked to make things seem a certain way… but I digress.

In any case, the review described why the book was super racist. The original poster asked others to spread the word that this was a problematic book and urged people to not read it.

This is when the shitstorm hit.

All of a sudden this became an issue of free speech for the “I like to read problematic books”/”I hate SJWs” crowd.

(Side note: That’s cool, hate SJWs for fighting for the rights you now currently enjoy… *Side eye*)

Here’s the thing, if you’ve read up till now you’ll know what I’m about to say: this is not censorship, nor does it infringe upon free speech.

While Laurie Forest may lose sales and therefore money, this is not an infringement on her rights or others. For those who do want to read the book, no one can actually stop you. If someone grabbed your copy of the book out of your hand and hit you on the head with it, then you could sue (and, in that case, it would be for assault and not censorship).

Essentially what you’re looking at is an informal boycott, which is not a form of physical violence between private citizens, nor is it being organized by a government. Therefore, it is legal.

Leaving one-star reviews on Goodreads (even if you haven’t read the book) is also not a form of censorship. Hell, it’s not even against Goodread’s own policies. It does not prevent people from picking up the book if they choose to do so.

While we’re on the subject, people saying you’re shit at writing outside of your own experience, or saying you should stay in your lane is *also* not censorship. You are still not being physically prevented from writing those kinds of stories.

Nothing is physically stopping anyone from accessing TBW nor expressing their like for it. There is no censorship or infringement of free speech going on here. You are still free to disagree with anyone who dislikes TBW or finds it problematic.

This brings me to my final point on this so-called issue of free speech: just because someone does something you don’t like, it doesn’t mean they are censoring you.

It is fair to not like the strategies in place or to criticize them, but throwing around labels that don’t actually fit is not a form of criticism: it is a form of dismissal. It’s a way for one side to sit on the proverbial pedestal and proudly claim they are fighting against the inevitable creation of a real Fahrenheit 451 by “SJWs”.

Here’s the thing: I’ve not seen anyone actually go through and refute the original review point-by-point. Instead, there are a lot of blanket statements or, again, outright dismissals without any substance behind them.

Because the reality is: you’re not fighting for anything. You can’t convince someone that their experience reading a book is invalid, so you need another target.

And what is the easiest way to get people who love books up in arms? Convince them that someone is trying to take away their books.

Well that’s the end of the first #LetsTalk post.

What do you think? Is there a case to be made that bad reviews and personal boycotts are a type of censorship?

Share your thoughts!

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