Free Speech and Its Limitations

A somewhat light-hearted article by Scott: Against Signal-Boosting As Doxxing

And related: Don’t allow your hatred to cloud your judgment of what free speech is:

But if you want to accuse Brown of violating Sobczak’s right to free speech, then you’re absolutely wrong. For a right to be violated, some sort of violence must be threatened or committed as a way to prevent or stop someone from exercising that right. Social pressure, such as the risk of being ostracized by peers for expressing a view, is neither violence nor a threat of violence. So while you might not agree with the tactic or the reason for the social pressure, you cannot claim that anyone’s rights were violated.

Overall, I agree Sobczak’s ‘rights’ were not impugned (as far as physicality is concerned). But Brown’s actions may constitute psychological aggression, but this is much more nebulous. The problem with trying to enforce such rules is that it goes against the ethos of minimal government. If one wants to equate psychological harm with with physical harm, then it will mean an expanded role of the state. That is already the case in the UK, where people have gotten arrested for tweeting. Brown had the right to retaliate, just as Sobczak had the right to tweet, but her response, in agreement with Scott, was disproportionate. It’s not because I am siding with her, but to try to stop such speech would probably cause more problems than it’s worth and have a slippery slope effect.

Scott writes:

I have a friend who grew up gay in a small town in Alabama, where “faggot” was the all-purpose insult and the local church preached hellfire as the proper punishment for homosexuality. He unsurprisingly stayed in the closet throughout his childhood and ended up with various awful psychological problems.


If you’re a very stupid libertarian strawman, you might ask whether that town had any anti-gay laws on the book – and, upon hearing they didn’t, say that town was “pro-gay”. If you’re not a very stupid libertarian strawman, you hopefully realize that being pro-gay isn’t about boasting how progressive your law code looks, it’s about having a society where it’s possible to be gay. Not having laws against locking up gay people is a necessary precondition, but it’s useless on its own. You only get good results if good laws are matched by good social norms.


Likewise, the goal of being pro-free-speech isn’t to make a really liberal-sounding law code. It’s to create a society where it’s actually possible to hold dissenting opinions, where ideas really do get judged by merit rather than by who’s powerful enough to shut down whom. Having free speech laws on the books is a necessary precondition, but it’s useless in the absence of social norms that support it. If you win a million First Amendment victories in the Supreme Court, but actively work to undermine the social norms that let people say what they think in real life, you’re anti-free-speech.

A problem with this argument is that there is no shortage of ways to offend people. Scott mentions his friend being insulted for being gay, but people are also insulted for:

being too tall
being too short
being fat
being skinny
having asthma
having braces
having acne
wearing glasses
and on and on…

But Scott also possibly contradicts himself. He says “the goal of being pro-free-speech isn’t to make a really liberal-sounding law code. It’s to create a society where it’s actually possible to hold dissenting opinions,” but what if one such dissenting opinion is opposition to homosexuality. I imagine Scott is invoking the lesser-known classical liberal utilitarian version of libertarianism. The idea is that free speech is protected provided it does not yield a ‘net negative’ utility against those who do not consent to it. For example, if I derive one one unit of happiness from making a comment, but three people a each lose a unit, then such a comment should be verboten. This leads to the utilitarian-libertarian paradox, in which the role of government is expanded to ‘promote/maximize freedom/liberty’, and is why this type of libertarianism is not libertarianism at all, but just another form of liberalism (if libertarianism is to mean minimal/non-existent government and self-directed rule).

Never retweeted a racist joke? Someone will find something. Maybe you’ve been a sex worker once – hope you didn’t put your picture up on the Internet, or else Reason columnists will say it’s not “doxxing” to merely “signal-boost” it so that everyone knows. Heck, even watching porn is enough to get people fired some places. Maybe you were stupid enough to admit you were gay or trans under something traceable to your real identity. Maybe you voted for Trump (a firing offense in some places) or against Trump (a firing offense in others). Maybe you committed a crime someone can find on a public crime database, or maybe you said something perfectly innocent which can be twisted into a sinister “dog whistle” out of context.

Of all of these, the ‘racist’ tweet has the most serious repercussions, by far. Porn and sex work, although grounds for termination in certain instances, will get you a lot of pity and piety points, and such behavior has pretty much become normalized in society today anyway, and also there is probably legal recourse. If you go on Reddit and tell your story of being fired for surfing pornhub instead of workhub, people will think it’s funny and even empathize, than if you got fired for making a joke about Muslims or Jews.

Scott says we need ‘better social norms,’ but this seems like one of those “we need ‘more good’ and ‘less bad’” arguments, because it’s so idealistic (who doesn’t want a world where everyone gets along?). The First Amendment in this context involves incomplete information and cooperation: to not post something that may lead to being doxed, and for the receiving side to not retaliate by doxing. But given how offensiveness is subjective and how easily people can be offended, defection is inevitable. Due to the unknowability of the utility function of the recipient, someone will always ‘take’ more offense than the other intended to ‘give’. A comment intended as a joke may be misconstrued as an insult. [Maybe Sobczak really likes BLTs and any connection with gender roles is unintentional.] Even the compliment ‘you have a nice dress today’ could be construed as an insult if it implies that the dresses she wears on other days are ugly. It would seem like Scott wants a law that prohibits anyone from saying or acting in a way that may be construed as being offensive to someone else.

Doxing is so effective because employers are so perfidious. The blame lies not with twitter but with employers not standing up for their employees, for fear of litigation and bad press. Similarly, universities should not capitulate to pressure to ‘no platform’ speakers deemed controversial, and should provide necessary security to protect such speakers against threats of physical violence.

In a world where an average of 250 resumes are received for each corporate position, how convincing does an effort have to be to ruin somebody’s life? Do you think your dream company is going to spend a long time sorting through each claim and counterclaim to determine that the highly-Google-ranked page about you claiming you’re unfit to work in your industry is mostly unfair? No. They’re just going to cut their risks and move on to the other 249 candidates.

Exactly…in today’s hyper-competitive economy, for many jobs the supply of labor vastly exceeds demand. Unless you’re in a position where your skills are irreplaceable and indispensable, why keep ‘Tom’, who on Twitter said a ‘mean’ thing about feminists, when ‘Bob’ is otherwise identical to Tom but does not have any baggage.

And who would enjoy this new flattened landscape more than the biggest and most predatory? In the Panopticon, any celebrity with a platform can destroy the lives of any ordinary person, just by mentioning them. It would be paradise for any petty tyrant with a blog, and hell for anybody too poor to tolerate a risk of losing their livelihood.

But I don’t see how a solution can be created that isn’t worse than the problem it’s trying to solve. I implore people to unsubscribe from Reason magazine…that is one solution.

Economics plays a role too. The future is one where there are fewer salaried jobs and more ‘gig jobs’, with doxing just one of many excuses employers will use to terminate employees they don’t otherwise want.