I have been trying to find an approach to writing a diary about the necessity of balancing rights of free speech against the rights of people who are often the targets of it. I thought that the controversies that boiled over here in relation to the issues about sexual violence and the efforts of women to discuss their experiences with it was truly a classic example of the problem. However, that debate became so extensive and complex that I found it very difficult to get a point of focus. Last night I saw an example of what I think was the same basic process on a much smaller scale and it has given me the starting point that I was looking for.
This happened in Robyn Serven's regular Friday night diary.
The thrust of her diary was that Stephen Colbert has a pattern of using transgender women as the butt of his jokes and that she finds this personally offensive. She expressed an opinion. She did not suggest that Colbert be taken off the air or otherwise restricted in his ability to purvey his stock in trade. If you look at the comments in the diary you can see three posters in a state of outrage that she would dare to express such an opinion. To me it doesn't seem to be just a matter of disagreeing with her opinion, but a claim that it is somehow unreasonable for her and "her friends" to even express it. I think that there is something wrong with this picture.
I often see people on Daily Kos and elsewhere talking about an absolute right to free speech. This position really amounts to a libertarian fetish. There is no such thing. There have always been limits imposed on speech. The focal point of the discussion is usually the first amendment to the US constitution. The constitution is essentially a contract between the state and its citizens. It imposes limitations and rules on the operation of the government. In the 1950s and 1960s free speech became a major issue for liberal politics. Two of the biggest issues were laws imposing restrictions on the publication of sexually explicit material and the McCarthyite restrictions on political speech. There were religious and political organizations who had managed to exert control over the laws of the state, but the battles were about government restrictions imposed on the speech of individual citizens. By about 1970 a new balance had been struck.
In the 21st C we are most often engaged in speech debates that focus on the private sector. Groups such as racial minorities, women and LBGT folk are raising objections to the public expression of prejudicial and derogatory statements about them and their concerns. These statements are coming from individuals and private organizations and not the government. The Westboro Baptist Church has been the most notorious instance. SCOTUS took the position that government does not have the power to restrict their expression of speech. However, there are no laws or judicial opinions which restrict the right of individuals to object to it.
Probably the most heated point in the debate about women and violence was the diary that was titled STFU. As far as I can tell, using that for a diary title did not violate any of the established rules on Daily Kos, yet there was a substantial cry of outrage over the use of such a title for whatever purpose. Most of it seemed to be coming from straight white men. The formal claim made in one counter diary was that it was an effort to restrict their "right" to debate.
Clearly there are a lot of restrictions of free speech on Daily Kos. Private business and media organizations always place some restrictions on speech that government does not. Now of course Markos is the only person who has the power to effectively enforce restrictions on other people's speech. The problem comes when people confuse an objection to someone else's speech with a restriction on it. A transwomen objecting to Colberts jokes is taken as a restriction on his speech. People asking for women to be given a chance to be heard is seen as a restriction of the rights of some men to try to shout them down. The very notion that people who have been in subordinate positions and considered fair game for jokes and ridicule have begun to push back seems to pose a very real threat.