How I think about free speech: Four categories

Here’s how I think about free speech. I see four levels of “wrongness” of speech, each of which merits a different reaction — none, individual social consequences, official social consequences, and legal consequences.

1. No consequences. In this category are views I disagree with, but I can see how a reasonable person could hold that view, and I can still respect those people and be friends with them. (Example: some principled conservatives.)

2. Individual social consequences. This category includes views that seem wrongheaded enough to me that I personally can’t respect them, and probably wouldn’t want to be friends with someone who holds them. (Example: “Trump is awesome!”) But these views are still within our society’s collective standards of decency, and I don’t think people should suffer any official consequences like being fired or blacklisted for them. The whole point of this category is that individuals make this call for themselves, deciding who they’re willing to be friends with, but they do not make any attempt to get society as a whole to punish the person.

3. Official social consequences. This category includes speech that falls far outside the bounds of our society’s standards of morality. (Example: “Jews are sub-human.”) This speech should still be legal, but I have no problem with people being fired or blacklisted for it.

4. Legal consequences. This small category includes speech that is dangerous enough that it should actually be illegal. (Example: incitements to violence.)

The most common disagreement that I have with people over free speech tends to involve them putting speech in category 3 that I think should be in category 2. Think of Twitter mobs calling for a CEO to be fired because he voted for Trump.

But I also sometimes see people arguing that a kind of speech should be in category 4 when I think it should be in 3 — for example, arguing that we should make hate speech illegal, which I think would be way too much of an infringement on free speech. (I also think it would yield results that even the advocates of this change would find terrible, like powerful groups using such laws to oppress minority views by classing them as “hate speech”).

And, on the other end of the spectrum, I sometimes see people arguing that category 2 shouldn’t exist — that you should never unfriend someone just because you disagree — and I think that’s wrong. It’s unreasonable to expect that a person’s views won’t affect your ability to like and respect them, and how can you be friends with someone you don’t like or respect?