Killing free speech softly with a retweet

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 23, 2014

Phil Robertson, known to viewers as the patriarch of the duck-hunting family in the cable reality show Duck Dynasty, recently found himself at the centre of a firestorm because of comments he made in a magazine interview.

The famously conservative redneck from the southern US state of Louisiana drew the ire of many when he voiced his opposition to homosexuality by equating it to bestiality.

Twitter and Facebook blew up with activity condemning Mr Robertson and calling on A&E, the TV station that carries Duck Dynasty, to take action. A&E, likely fearing advertiser blowback, promptly suspended Mr Robertson indefinitely from the programme - bringing a predictable end to an all-too-familiar Internet story.

Except that it didn't.

The story of a person making an ill-informed remark, having it explode online and then being fired, suspended or forced to make a tearful apology has become something of a staple in the Internet age. But of late, it seems that narrative has led some in a country well-known for advocating free speech to question if that freedom remains unencumbered.

Over the past two months in the United States, there were more than half a dozen instances of people getting into hot water for things they said, with Mr Robertson being perhaps the most notable offender.

Juan Pablo Galaviz, the star of reality TV show The Bachelor, apologised for his comments about gays; public relations chief Justine Sacco of the company behind websites like the Daily Beast lost her job over a racist tweet about Aids; actor Alec Baldwin had his new show on MSNBC cancelled because he used a gay slur in an altercation with reporters; MSNBC host Martin Bashir resigned after an egregious insult against former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin; and a notable gun writer Dick Metcalf was fired after a column that supported some form of regulation.

In each instance, the outrage was swift and perpetrated predominantly online, through the likes of Twitter and Facebook. And in each instance, bosses disciplined their employees without any compulsion from American law.

The difference in Mr Robertson's case is that there was a pushback to the pushback that threatened his job, so much so that in a matter of weeks, his indefinite suspension was over. In the process, he got many in the country talking about free speech, including two high-profile lawmakers.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and Texas Senator Ted Cruz - both said to be considering a bid to be the Republican nominee to the White House in 2016 - came out defending Mr Robertson and lamenting an attack on free speech enshrined in the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

In a Facebook post titled "Free Speech Matters", Mr Cruz wrote: "The reason that so many Americans love Duck Dynasty is because it represents the America usually ignored or mocked by liberal elites: a family that loves and cares for each other, believes in God, and speaks openly about their faith."

Mr Jindal made a similar point: "I don't agree with quite a bit of stuff I read in magazine interviews or see on TV. In fact, come to think of it, I find a good bit of it offensive. But I also acknowledge that this is a free country and everyone is entitled to express their views. In fact, I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment."

Some free speech advocates, however, see no apparent threat to the First Amendment.

Mr Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Centre, an organisation that studies free-expression issues, said that just as Mr Robertson was free to say what he said, A&E was free to fire him.

"The First Amendment and free speech are not endangered species as the result of the flap, as some say. In fact, it's a good teaching moment on how free speech - as long as government stays out of the fray - works."

So who is right? Is free speech ailing or is it as strong as ever?

As with most polarising debates, it is most likely the case that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

There certainly does not appear to have been any encroachment by the US government on free speech, yet one would be hard-pressed to argue that everyone remains as free to mouth off as before.

The basics certainly have not changed. In fact, much of the same mechanics apply in Singapore as well.

For instance, I am free to voice a controversial opinion on a blog or Twitter without fear of government persecution as long as it is not defamatory. In Singapore, there is the added provision to prevent racial and religious hate speech.

By the same token, you are free to disagree with me. And if enough people disagree with enough ferocity, I may well lose my job.

The difference today though is that the second step of that has been made almost trivially easy by technology. It is now so easy to share an offending tweet or post, just as it is so easy to respond angrily and to compile the angry responses into a campaign.

Perpetrators of controversial speech in the past had the comfort of having at least a vague idea of knowing who their words would reach.

Today's perpetrators like Ms Sacco, with a Twitter following of only a few hundred, discovered just how quickly an offensive line can spread beyond her following.

Similarly, the ease of retaliation has lowered the threshold as to how offensive a statement has to be before a reader or listener is motivated to strike back.

The outcome is, in many ways, similar to a government encroachment of free speech even if the process is more democratic: People have to be careful about what they say to avoid trouble.

Now, having to watch your words is not necessarily a bad thing. Most, if not all, of those who got into trouble had said some genuinely offensive things.

Yet there is a thin line here. The more it becomes acceptable behaviour to seek punitive retribution against those who say things we find offensive, the less people will be able or willing to speak out.

And if free speech were to die a death by a thousand cuts, we would all have had a hand on the knife.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 23, 2014

To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to