On (Consequence-)Free Speech

It used to be the case that you could make a crude joke or denigrating comment among a close group of like friends and not have your intentions misconstrued or your context muddled. Never mind that your intentions were thoughtless and hurtful, and that your context was plain as day. It may have been wrong, it may have been reprehensible, but you could pretty much ensure that that comment would not see the light of day outside your closed group. And if by some crazy chance it did, well, you could deny it, or say you were taken out of context – hell, that excuse has worked for politicians since the dawn of time.

For some reason however, even after years of social media activity and many high profile missteps, people still think they can carry on as before, making crude jokes and denigrating comments to 700 of their closest friends on their Facebook and Twitter feeds. There may well be Fort Knoxian bastions of social media privacy, and more power to them. But for the rest of us, there remains just one question:


Take the sad tale of PR maven Justine Sacco. Before hopping a flight from London to Cape Town, she jokingly tweeted:

Justine Sacco

Why?! Especially from someone who understands the ins and outs of public relations, and who knows the reason there is a PR discipline called crisis management. Because of this tweet, just 64 characters in the digital ether, Justine Sacco was fired from her high-flying job.

Another one, from a mortgage loan officer named Lisa Greenwood making her thoughts about the First Lady known:

Lisa Greenwood Tweet

Again, why?! She may well feel that way, but why broadcast it across social media? The misguided Lisa was also fired after an outcry and pressure from an avalanche of Twitter users.

There seems to be a belief among some social media denizens that their social media accounts act as some sort of shield or protective bubble behind which they can say what they wouldn’t in polite company.

One of the arguments offenders often make when called out on their anger, or bigotry, or crudeness is that they have a right to say what they want, a right to free speech. Which is true, as stated in the first amendment to the Constitution. It says congress may make no law abridging the freedom of speech, meaning the government can’t stop you from or punish you for saying just about anything, even on social media. But by the perpetrators’ thinking that means, by attacking them, their right to free speech is being impinged.

What these offensive offenders of social mediaites’ sensibilities refuse to understand is that their right to free speech does not mean they have a right to consequence-free speech. For all intents and purposes, social media is a public space, and all the social mores apply. If what you say on social media is offensive, bigoted, denigrating, misogynistic, or what have you, the government cannot do a single, solitary thing about it. Others in your life cannot stop you from saying what you want either. However, if the customers where you work are offended, your boss can fire you. If your spouse takes your bigotry personally, he or she can divorce you. If your misogyny turns the stomachs of your fellow book club members, they can expel you from the group.

This has been proven over many years – it is not in question. Which is why I was simply flabbergasted when I saw this:


What are we to do when even our supposed best and brightest fall prey to the same idiocy that we everyday mortals stumble over every day? These are smart kids, driven, accomplished – and whose Ivy-degree-blessed futures could potentially be tarnished due to the posting of some dank meme. Once more (and say it with me, loudly): Why?!

I guess the answer for this rhetorical question is more psychological than sociological – we just can’t help ourselves. There is that need in us to constantly try to make others laugh with little throw away zingers often at the expense not just of other individuals but of whole classes of people, or bond over anger stoked by abusive language.

My advice? Simple: Play nice, we’re watching…

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