Free Speech

Most asinine thing I’ve read in the newspaper this week: on the subject of Intel’s suit against a former employee who used its email system to send bulk messages to company employees, the perpetrator’s attorney stated that an appellate ruling against his client is wrong because it grants “recipients of e-mail messages the unprecedented power to censor Internet speech”.

Say what? I call significant bullshit on that one. In essence, this shyster is stating that my desire not to have my personal email system invaded by anyone who wishes to use it somehow stifles free speech. Could it get more ludicrous than this? Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it the party who’s had his personal space and property invaded the one who’s been wronged here?

It’s a pity that so few people (especially in Internet La La Land) have even the most basic clue what the concept of free speech entails. Free speech does not mean that individuals have the right to say whatever they please, whenever they please, using whatever medium they please. Nor does it mean that you or I, as individuals, nor that Intel, as a corporation, are under any obligation whatsoever to provide a forum for the free speech of others.

Understand that I am a staunch defender of free speech. I think it is perhaps the most important aspect of a democratic and free society. And, unlike so many other people who rant about the subject (my fellow liberals being big violators here), I also believe that the right to free speech even extends to people with whom I disagree. Yes, that means I believe that Fred Phelps has the same right to tell me I’m doomed to hell that I have to tell him he’s a flaming moron, as long as neither of us breaks the law, and as long as we both are able to create and operate our own forums for doing so.

However, I chafe at the notion that free speech somehow means that there are no limits. My understanding of free speech is that individuals can say what they like, as long as they provide their own forum (be it a soapbox, a website, or a zine) and as long as they understand that their exercise of free speech rights is also subject to repercussions from others who have the same rights.

A good example is web message boards. I have the right to create my own board and use it basically as I see fit. No one (except my service provider, whom I have the power to choose) has the right to tell me what I can and cannot say on my own message board or website. At the same time, I DO have the right to tell people what THEY may or may not say on MY board, just as I have that right in my living room or my place of business. And if the individual in question wants to continue saying his piece, he has every right to do so. On his OWN message board, or in his OWN living room or place of business. Or in front of City Hall, for all I care.

In other words, I have no right to shut him up, unless he violates the law and I choose to pursue it, but neither do I have the obligation to provide him with a forum. He can (and must) damned well do that himself.

Same with the guy who’s pissed off that Intel fired him. Of course he’s trespassing by sending mass-mailings using Intel’s email system. This is not even worthy of discussion. He’s using their property against their will. There’s nothing to prevent Mr. Hamidi from saying whatever he wants about Intel, as long as he does so using his own resources and not theirs.

Free speech is a two-way street. Proponents of all sides of an issue possess the right to it in equal measure. And both sides must be prepared to face repercussions ranging from heated arguments to libel suits. But one side does not have the right to steal from nor abuse the property of the other side in order to exercise its right to free speech. That’s not free speech at all. It’s larceny.