With the purchase of Twitter by Elon Musk due to his interest in “reinstating free speech”, a question we have to ask is: how will this impact oppression and inequity? The answer surely is: There is a deep danger of an increase in hate crimes, as was common on Twitter before any type of regulation. Violent and hateful speech has most commonly been directed at gender minorities and Black and Brown communities, so this policy change would likely harm them the most. When we account for the status quo being one of oppression based on false negative ideas about marginalised groups, it is clear how our notion of speech (or tweets) can further and legitimate harm. On the Fearless Futures Podcast our CEO Hanna Naima McCloskey says, “We do not believe there should be any space to debate racism, its existence, or its usefulness. We would say that seeking to debate or to ‘air both sides of the problem’ is why there is so rarely progress in our organisations.” This is why it can be counterproductive to present that oppression is debatable in diversity training workshops.
Another question we may want to ask is: what even is freedom of speech? While in the U.S. in particular it’s felt by many to be an absolute principle held above all others, the first amendment is actually about preventing government censorship of individuals – because of the significant power imbalance of the government versus an individual. Therefore, “free speech” is not a principle of getting to say whatever you want to whomever you want, wherever you want – at least not without consequences. For example, private companies have no obligation to let you say whatever you want while you’re in their employment. Additionally, anti-discrimination legislation such as Title VII of the civil rights act that prevents discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex etc interacts with free speech, curbing our “freedom” in service of those living within certain protected characteristics, because of the recognition that speech has an impact.
What is unfortunately ironic is, the same people who insist on free speech in any realm are those advocating for the banning of books in U.S. school districts. An unprecedented 1,500 books, predominantly about race and LGBTQ+ issues, have been banned just this year. Clearly, this is an argument for free speech for some while censoring the ideas of others. However, some organisations have stepped up to ensure that people anywhere can access the resources they need to hear stories from and learn about their marginalised identities, despite the stigma and limitation they are now being placed under. The Brooklyn Public Library announced recently that any teenager in the U.S. is eligible for a Brooklyn Public Library card, where they can sign out ebooks and audiobooks from wherever they live.
So how will your company navigate this “debate” around freedom of speech? Which employees’ voices are most frequently silenced when people are given free reign to harass others? How can you prioritise your employees’ safety and dignity when they are confronted with discriminatory language or behaviour? What policies may need to be put in place to create a system of accountability for those instances when communication is actively and continuously harmful? Most importantly: what will sacrifice for freedom of speech in absolute terms? What lines in the sand are you willing to draw in service of equity and anti-oppression?