Randall Munroe reiterates an often invoked defense of censorship in his last xkcd comic: freedom of speech only applies to interactions with the government. By this logic, non-governmental entities are free to censor any sort of speech they don’t like. In order to understand why this approach is corrupting a basic human right, we need to go back to the beginning.
In 1689 England’s Bill of Rights stated that “the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament”. This was obviously limited to members of Parliament and to the proceedings of that institution.
In 1789 the French Revolution brought the famous Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen which stated: “The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.”. With this, freedom of speech is no longer a political necessity but a fundamental human right bestowed upon all citizens all the time.
In 1948 the French notion of human rights was adopted by most of the planet through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Here’s the relevant section: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”. Pretty straightforward, right? But free speech is a powerful weapon and outside the legal framework of limits and punishments, it’s easy to be bothered by people saying absurd things and then claiming it’s their right to do so.
Guess what? It really is their right to do so. The dark side is very tempting with its justifiable censorship that surely won’t affect us sensible people, but freedom is much more important than comfort. So important, in fact, that we should defend the freedom of expression of people “shown the door” by a majority that labeled them “assholes”. Even if we agree with the labeling. There are many acceptable ways of dealing with speech we don’t agree with. Censorship is not one of them.