Americans have (with exceptions) come to understand and accept that the government has a justifiably limited ability to punish people for speech. Despite this — or perhaps as a result of it — free speech debates often revolve around the topic of individual retaliation or punishment for others’ speech, which is a much more complex issue — one complicated by many factors.
One complicating factor is the fact that retaliation itself can usually (but not always) itself be a form of protected speech. Thus, while the discussion often centers on what people can do to retaliate, the real discussion to be had lies in what people ought to be allowed to do — not “allowed” in the legal sense, but in the sense of norms that we all ought to apply. There are folks out there who seem to take an almost absolutist position that nearly all private retaliation should be considered acceptable. Many of them tend to be First Amendment absolutists, who (in my opinion) often have a difficult time separating what is legal (permissible legally) from norms (what ought to be considered acceptable retaliation/punishment behavior assuming that the retaliation/punishment is legal). Such absolutists will tell you that, for example, social media ought to have an unfettered ability to bounce any user for any reason; or that a non-state employer should be able to fire employees for disfavored speech; or that people should be able to boycott companies, seek deplatforming of speakers, or advocate for other individuals’ firing. The “should be able to” formation shows their concern about government intervention — and this concern is proper, because the uninformed often equate violations of norms with violations of law, and/or try to enshrine violations of norms in the law. But looking at the question in a purely normative fashion — how ought we to feel about this deplatforming or that boycott — is a more difficult question.
Which leads me to a second complicating factor: politics. This post is less sexy and interesting than it might otherwise be, because I am deliberately trying to stay away from concrete examples of retaliation or punishment. I am doing this because concrete examples usually cause most thinkers to allow political considerations to overwhelm any balanced and politically neutral principles as to whether speech should be socially acceptable. It’s much easier to reach an opinion on a particular type or retaliation or punishment if I phrase the issue in concrete terms, such as the right of a broadcaster to fire his head writer for openly racist views expressed publicly but not in the work setting; or the right of a social media company to append cautionary notices to tweets from a political figure; or deplatforming of a particular figure. Especially in that last case, you want specifics before you make up your mind. Don’t you want to know who is being deplatformed, to know whether you should care? And should the person’s identity matter? Maybe it should! Maybe it shouldn’t! This is what we’re discussing here.
Which is a good segue into a third complicating factor: judgment. It turns out that it is very difficult to establish totally bright-line rules for establishing whether retaliation or punishment for speech ought to be tolerated, because different situations are indeed different (unless you take an extreme absolutist view either way, which becomes difficult as specific hypotheticals are posed). It sounds great to say people ought not lose their jobs for political beliefs expressed in a forum outside the job — but ought a political spokesman really be immune from firing when he routinely criticizes his client on Twitter during off hours? The key is to apply that judgment in a politically neutral way. In other words, it might be defensible to have a non-absolutist view about the social acceptability of boycotts. But I think citizens should do their best to develop a politically neutral standard for their views on boycotts (or any other retaliation or punishment), where the judgment to be applied is divorced to the extent possible from the political nature of the views expressed.
For example, Tucker Carlson’s writer probably should have been fired, and even people like me who generally decry “cancel culture” did not criticize Carlson for his decision to terminate his openly racist writer. But we didn’t hold that view because we are OK with racism against whites but not against blacks. Rather, we simply thought Carlson should not be forced to employ an openly racist writer regardless of the target of his racism. If Carlson’s writer had openly advocated the inferiority of the white race, instead of the black race, that would not change our views. Similarly, your view of whether it ought to be socially permissible to boycott a corporation is different from the question whether you would participate in such a boycott. For example, you might take the view that it is wrong to boycott a corporation simply because its CEO says things you don’t like on Twitter, but ought to be considered socially permissible to boycott a company that donates millions to a political cause you despise. The political cause you despise might be the opposite of that of a leftist, and so you might boycott different corporations than a leftist would. But it would be hypocritical and silly for you to claim “boycotts are wrong” as you denounce a leftist for boycotting company x, which donates millions to charity a (which the leftist despises) . . . while you simultaneously advocate a boycott of company y, which donates millions to charity b, which you despise. Either boycotts are wrong under these circumstances or they aren’t — which is not the same thing as saying boycotts are always wrong (or right) under any circumstances. See the difference?
It’s a complicated topic and I have run out of time for this morning. Consider this post to be a stream of consciousness discussion-starter, rather than a full-blown essay on the topic. I intend to write a longer post on this issue when I have more time, and when I do, I hope that I will be able to take advantage of wise commentary left by smart people on this thread.