It is important that “freedom of speech” be encouraged the world over with no attempt made to prevent a most treasured and precious basic right from being exercised “freely”. There are countries intent on muzzling media and citizens in keeping with a dictatorial regime, so those of us who enjoy the liberty of expression must hold it in premium value and never take it for granted. There is, however, a school of thought among many that speaking freely and freedom of speech are twins with a distinct siamese feature, making one somewhat indistinguishable from the other.
We can always say there are times we have the opportunity to speak “freely” amongst friends and family, yet there are still occasions which dictate discretion. You wouldn’t expect parents to sit at the dinner table having discussions about personal issues between them with their children hearing possible sordid details. We still maintain “decent” dialogue with our fellow employees and employers at work. It is well known that in military circles and some other professional bodies it is common to hear the expression “permission to speak freely” as a way to advise those gathered of the possible discomfort or direct utterances to come. So it is fair to say here that “speaking freely” is more about the ability to speak, than what is said, as we should always observe what is said where, when and why.
This brings us to the issue of “freedom” of speech. Are we actually free to say whatever we want whenever we choose and use “freedom of speech” as a cover? No, because contrary to popular belief and perilous practice, there are consequences for the things we say or write. The issue of libel, slander, inciting vitriol or violence, perpetrating fraud and several other issues are connected to the reckless use of speech. The maligning of character regarding public officials is also something many of us believe we are entitled to do because “they are servants of the people”. In that case, it is more about how lowly we see a servant versus what we perceive as our right to say anything about a public one. How many of us believe we can call our housekeepers “thief”, knowing little would come of it? Is that because we have freedom of speech or because we believe they are not empowered enough to mount a legal challenge? Yet we seem to take the same approach with public servants and personalities who we believe we have the “right” to say anything about.
No matter what the social standing of a man and his station in life, we will never have the right to defame or debase his position solely on the basis of our freedom of speech. Sadly, while the advent of social media has created an increasingly popular culture in the way information is presented and made available in real-time, we have opened the door for millions who prior to that would be far more cautious in their public opinion or even those ignorant of the laws governing libel, slander and other offensive acts. It is now much easier for lawsuits to require deeper pockets as the reach and influence of malicious and defamatory statements go worldwide in a minute. No longer are people sticking to traditional media, but almost any person can get up tomorrow and be counted as credible. The more damaging element is anonymity or a deliberate attempt to create “phantoms” or “trolls” and having what is said in a forum or group reposted. The more it is circulated, the more believable it becomes and the damage to character and reputation is beyond calculation if left unchecked.
Over the years, many attempts have been made to educate and sensitize the users of social media to the dangers of using the cloak of “freedom of speech” to barricade themselves behind a trench of unsubstantiated claims and nonexistent evidence. There are some people who claim “I didn’t write it so I didn’t do anything wrong” or “we are free to agree with anything or add our voices to whatever we so choose”. No, you’re not exempt from the consequences there either. If you help to create the continuity in the chain of malicious information you are literally just as bad as the creator. However, that’s not the bigger point. Those who believe whatever they see online can be taken and used as facts, beware. Those who believe freedom of speech allows you to be free to say whatever you feel like saying, beware. Those who think any attempt to regulate or legally obligate people to stay within the boundaries of free speech are censoring and confining speech, beware.
We cannot believe it is our right to say anything without consequences, believe any “source” is credible, distance ourselves from publications saying we were not authors, but merely endorsed and promoted its inaccuracies or use freedom of speech as an excuse. The easiest way to check what you write or what is being said about an individual is to place yourself and your family members at the altar of accusation and public opinion. It is highly unlikely and near impossible that you would as easily agree and defend your choice of words filled with inflammatory thoughts, remarks or reactions.
The use of social media requires as much care as diving off an Olympic springboard before checking to see if there is water in the pool. The effects will be far worse than encountering difficulty in the water and you can’t merely say “I thought it was safe to do because I had the right to dive in”. In this day and age of social media the importance of care, diplomacy, tact and awareness cannot be overemphasized and highlighted. Do not allow yourself to get caught up in the near misses and seeming nonchalance others might use daily and escape penalties. The cost of lawsuits, especially from those higher up on the social ladder or with higher public profile is a cross to bear which can be avoided by simply understanding a basic rule: “freedom of speech is a privilege to speak freely, not a right to destroy, defame or deceive and like a drunk driver who causes an accident…the consequences can be most severe”. Be careful the next time you publish, repost or comment…freedom of speech has borders too.