Today I spoke at Horasis, “The Global Visions Community”, on free speech in a session titled “What Are the Limits of Freedom of Expression?”
In a world where the speech of Chick-fil-A, public personas like Jordan Peterson, Eric Zemmour, or Marjorie Taylor Greene, a lies-ridden Twittersphere, and the overreach of China’s media watchdog co-exist, free speech has become a thorny issue for the LGBTQ+ movement.
On one hand, we acknowledge and stand against the rise of homophobic and transphobic hate speech. On the other hand, we fight restrictions on freedom of speech by Governments around the globe constraining LGBTQ+ visibility.
I am a bit of a one-trick pony and tend to speak exclusively on LGBTQ+ inclusion and the role of the private sector. However, one cannot work on progressive causes in 2021 without finding oneself in the midst of this controversy.
A lot of my focus at Out Leadership is on places like China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, or Ghana that stifle the free speech of LGBTQ+ people with so-called gay propaganda laws or blanket bans on LGBTQ+ events. The Russian ban on “promotion of non-traditional sexual relationships” China’s ban on LGBTQ+ content in the media or the recent protest by authorities in Singapore of a benign discussion at the US embassy is designed to frustrate social change on LGBTQ+ issues. The invisibility of LGBTQ+ people, through restrictions on free speech (and freedom of assembly), remains the weapon of choice of every homophobic government.
This should be enough of a reason for the LGBTQ+ community to be an undeterrable champion for free speech, particularly “heretical” speech which we ourselves find uncomfortable.
Yet, when I see LGBTQ+ people in universities advocating for the ban, punishment, or disciplining of individuals based on their constitutionally protected speech, I am concerned we are not doing a good enough job in highlighting the link between LGBTQ+ liberation and freedom of speech.
However, there are limits to freedom of speech. The obvious rule of thumb is that nobody should be allowed to threaten or discriminate – circumstances where it is justifiable to curb speech. Similarly, I believe that social media platforms have the responsibility to ensure they do not spread lies or untruths without labeling them as such. There is a difference between having a hateful opinion and presenting false facts.
There was a fascinating article this weekend (Once a bastion of Free speech, A.C.L.U. faces an identity crisis in the New York Times) on ACLU which find itself between a rock and a hard place. In fact, ACLU has produced a useful factsheet on balancing the protection from harassment and the right to free speech on LGBTQ+ issues in schools: “students have the right to voice opposition to civil rights for LGBT people in a classroom discussion.”
Ultimately, a key element is for LGBTQ+ people to remember is that debate and dissent are necessary for progress. Maybe what we now dub “culture war” is the process through which societal consensus always emerges. In a recent ProudlyResilient by Out Leadership discussing LGBTQ+ equality in Japan, I was reminded how homophobic comments by a Japanese lawmaker are actually a sign of progress in a country where LGBTQ+ are often invisible.
Sometimes hate speech is also a wake-up call for the majority.