Top News

Russell Wangersky: Your words can come back to bite you

If you believe freedom of speech and the relatively anonymity of being part of a large crowd means you won’t have to bear any responsibility for what you do, you’re wrong.
If you believe freedom of speech and the relatively anonymity of being part of a large crowd means you won’t have to bear any responsibility for what you do, you’re wrong.

Think of it this way.

Russell Wangersky

You’re allowed to be ignorant and offensive — except within the parameters of hate speech — as you like.

You can get invited to a party, tell the host he’s as ugly as a dog, trash the food as “too ethnic” and tell anyone who’s listening that immigrants are ruining the country, and talk extensively and pointedly about how everyone there is a loser.

You can be any sort of boor you’d like to be.

But there’s no guarantee that your host is ever going to invite you to another party at that house — nor is it likely that anyone else at the party is going to add you to a guest list for a gathering at their home, either.

You are free to speak in this country without the danger of going to prison for the things you say — unless you’re threatening someone or it’s hate speech — but that doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences. You might end up alone at home in your living room. Chickens have a way of coming home to roost.

Freedom of speech isn’t freedom from the consequences of what you say.

I say this after a series of neo-Nazi and white supremacist protesters at Charlottesville, Va., had the unfortunate experience of having their behaviour follow them home.

Opponents have done their best to identify the white power supporters at the protest, and take that information back to the employers of those who marched on the white supremacist side.

The internet is an unwieldy and inaccurate tool — there have been people who were misidentified as neo-Nazi protesters who have suffered as much as those who have been correctly identified as taking part. Using personal information on the web as a weapon — doxxing, as it’s called — can be the equivalent of burning down a house to get rid of mice.

But in this day and age, if you believe freedom of speech and the relatively anonymity of being part of a large crowd means you won’t have to bear any responsibility for what you do — well, you’re wrong.

You are welcome to have an offensive and racist website without the government stepping in and sending you to jail; advertisers who find you repugnant are welcome to pull their ads from your sites, and companies that host websites are welcome to withdraw their platform if they don’t want to be associated with your bile and find that you’ve violated their terms of service.

The misunderstanding about what freedom of speech means is one that people often seem to have about freedom of the press. Freedom of the press means that you have the right to publish your views in your own publication (within the most basic of standards about hate literature). It doesn’t mean you have a guaranteed right to have any newspaper or news outlet publish your tract on immigrants or your online comment on the primacy of white power. Heck, if my bosses disapprove of what I write, my livelihood vanishes — I don’t have a guaranteed right to use their platform to express views that they find repulsive.

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” is often attributed to either Voltaire or Patrick Henry, but was actually written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall in 1906.

But not one of the trio would have to hire you, let you attend their campus or invite you over to their house, if the views you were fond of expressing were morally repugnant to them.

Words have an impact — and that works both ways.

They can hurt the person you say them to or about — but they can hurt you, too.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 35 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at rwanger@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.

Latest News