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Let’s talk about Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, and Freedom of Press.

Freedom of speech is not freedom from criticism or consequence for what you say. It’s not freedom from people deciding they don’t like your speech. It’s not freedom from people expressing that they are offended by your speech. It’s not freedom from being held socially accountable for using speech to bully others. Legally, it’s not freedom from accountability for slander, or inciting violence. Morally, it’s not freedom from paying a social or economic price for being a jackass.

Humor is not a specially protected form of speech. Claiming that something was “just a joke” does not exempt it from social norms regarding what kinds of speech people find harmful to others. Humor is conventionally allotted a little extra latitude, because humor often functions, in part, by violating taboos in revealing ways, with neither the intention nor result of violating the underlying purpose of those taboos. But far from all violations of social taboos couched as jokes meet that criterion. A racist or misogynistic joke is still racist or misogynistic, regardless of it having been a joke.

There are some gray areas we have to grapple with: For instance: To what extent and under what circumstances is it okay for an employer to punish the speech of an employee? At one extreme, it’s clearly okay for an employer to fire a customer service representative who is in the habit of rudely berating customers when they call for assistance. At the other extreme, it clearly would violate the spirit of the First Amendment if corporations routinely punished employees in non-sensitive positions for expressing any political view at any time or anywhere other than that of the employer or of the employer’s clientele. There is a large and varied range of possibilities between those two, some areas of which are open to debate.

But, in public discourse, when people respond to criticism of their positions with a proclamation that that criticism is a violation of their right to free speech, they are engaging in a particularly convenient and hypocritical notion of what free speech is, for the person criticizing them has as much right to speak as they do, and to insist that their criticism be withheld in deference to your right to say what you like without being criticized for it is to insist that you but not they should be able to enjoy the right to speak freely.

A similar phenomenon occurs with freedom of religion. Christianity is the dominant religion in America, numerically and institutionally. Freedom of religion protects the right of people of all religions, including but not exclusively Christianity, to be able to practice their religion without governmental interference and to be able not to have any other religion imposed on them in any way through governmental agency. But fundamentalist Christians have come to interpret “freedom of religion” to mean their freedom to continue to have an exclusive right to impose the symbolism of their religion on others through governmental agency, and to be free from seeing anyone else ever celebrating any religion other than theirs in public.

Finally, and most recently, the pattern has reached freedom of the press. There is now an authoritarian populist demagogue in power, supported by an authoritarian populist base, that wants to redefine freedom of the press to mean “freedom of the press if we like what the press says,” reserving to themselves the right to declare what they consider to be true or false (independently of actual empirical evidence) and to use the power of government anything that they decree to be false, even if it is by all conventional methodologies clearly true.

All three of these misconceptions –the one that insists that freedom of speech means one’s own freedom to say what they like without any chance of reprisal or criticism from others but not other’s right to say what those others like if they disagree with it, the one that insists that freedom of religion means one’s own freedom to exercise their religion in public and expect exclusive governmental endorsement of it but no one else’s right to do the same, and the one that insists that the press is free to report and editorialize as they like, but that if they do so in a manner that a populist faction in power disagrees with, the government supported by that populist faction should have the power to silence them– are tyrannical interpretations of these fundamental freedoms.

Tyranny rarely announces itself by name. Frequently, particularly in the modern era, tyranny uses the language of liberty while exercising the substance of oppression and political thuggery. Please feel free to use this post, in part or in its entirety, whenever you come across these phenomena in public discourse. These freedoms exist because sunlight is the best disinfectant, and this post is designed to shed some sunlight on a horribly infected portion of our shared cognitive landscape.

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