What is “free speech”?

If you ever dip below the line on the internet and skim through the variety of intelligence, ignorance, and offensive statements that make up most comment sections, you’ll probably have seen this claim “[organization/company] shouldn’t have fined/fired/suspended this guy, he has freedom of speech!”

Sure, it is true that he has freedom of speech, but what does that mean? At the risk of boring you, here is the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

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.

That’s pretty straightforward. The government can’t restrict your freedom of speech (although there are a number of exceptions, they don’t apply here). You can’t be arrested for taking offense at Michael Sam kissing his boyfriend, or saying that on Twitter, or for making racist comments in a conversation. It’s not a crime.

However, your employer or any organizations with which you are affiliated can take the view that your opinions are likely to reflect poorly on them, and punish you as they see fit. In the case of Donald Sterling, the NBA is likely to argue that his comments may negatively effect the value of other teams and the league as a whole. For Don Jones, the Miami Dolphins will probably make a similar case if they are challenged on the point. The Constitution doesn’t require that organizations continue to affiliate with people who make comments that others consider offensive.

Freedom of speech doesn’t prevent people thinking (and saying) that you are a terrible person with nasty opinions. It doesn’t protect you from being fined, suspended, or fired from your job. It doesn’t protect you from having business associates force you out of a partnership. It simply prevents you from being prosecuted or restrained by the government for engaging in most forms of speech.

Denying the Racist

How do humans react to evil that we see or hear? Usually our reactions fall under two categories that aren’t mutually exclusive: attempts to repair the damage and efforts to distance ourselves from the perpetrators. The closer one is to the source of evil, the more likely that one will focus on the latter course. It’s understandable — most people don’t want to be viewed as violent, hateful, or discriminatory, and will work to differentiate themselves from those responsible.

For a recent case, let’s look at the Boston Bruins’ response to racist abuse (largely on Twitter) directed at Montreal Canadiens defenseman P. K. Subban. Bruins’ President Cam Neeley said in a statement: “The racist, classless views expressed by an ignorant group of individuals following Thursday’s game via digital media are in no way a reflection of anyone associated with the Bruins organization.” People who made these comments were called “sub-human” and more by other fans (the irony of which is notable).

Is it true? Most people would hope so. But it can’t be: we know that Bruins fans (a small minority, to be sure) tweeted this abuse. While only the fans responsible for the abuse should be censured for it, the team and other fans have a shared responsibility for their conduct, in both a moral and public relations sense. Put another way, the actions of any member of a group do have an impact on the image of every member, and the group as a whole has a responsibility to create an environment that discourages and punishes unacceptable conduct.

What does it mean to apply this in practice? It means calling friends out on their racism and pushing for institutional responses to those who engage in racist abuse. In doing so, organizations and people can take steps to prevent evil, hate, and injustice in their name. Instead, most people and groups push the problem away and attempt to describe it as someone else’s concern. It “isn’t us,” “doesn’t represent what we believe” and so on. This is standard PR practice, but it doesn’t solve the problem.