What Is Freedom of Speech?

Freedom of speech is a concept that’s easily misunderstood. As easy as it can be to extrapolate from the name that there should never be repercussions for speaking, that is not at all what freedom of speech means. It refers instead to the concept that the government does not have the right to imprison or otherwise punish its citizens for speech alone–in other words, government censorship is forbidden. This amounts not to a lack of consequences for what one says, but a lack of government control over what one says. Except where illegal activity beyond speech occurs, we have to take the government out of the equation. That’s it.

We cannot escape the fact what we say has consequences. Even if it were possible to forbid any repercussions toward the speaker, we would still see repercussions towards those who hear. The old adage, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” is a lie, as words can and do cause harm, and at times leave deep emotional scarring.

At the same time, even without government censorship, for any individual or non-governmental organization to respond or react to what one says is never a violation of freedom of speech. If others call someone out for saying hateful, vitriolic, racist, sexist, or otherwise problematic comments, they are well within their rights to do so. We need to be able to communicate with one another, to call out anyone who’s being a problem, and to foster greater understanding and community.

When it comes to YouTube, freedom of speech is no excuse to let hate speech and vitriolic comments to go unchecked. We all have the right to a voice. But beyond that, we have a responsibility to whatever kind of a community and society we wish to foster.

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