THE BLOG
01/23/2014 11:06 am ET Updated Mar 25, 2014

Free Speech Elitism: Harassment Is Not the Price 'We' Pay for Free Speech

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Many thoughtful and provocative conversations about online harassment have emerged lately, particularly in the wake of Amanda Hess's excellent article, "Why Women Aren't Welcome on the Internet."

Hess and others detail the violence and severity of the harassment many women receive simply for being identifiable as women online, from casual sexual harassment to "revenge porn" to threats of rape, kidnapping and death. Much has also been written lately about abortion clinic "buffer zone" laws, particularly now that the constitutionality of requiring protesters to keep their distance from people entering reproductive health facilities is before the Supreme Court. Before the Massachusetts buffer zone law at issue in McCullen v. Coakley was passed, protesters would hurl abuse at clients and employees, call them murderers, demand their contact information, and attempt to physically prevent them from entering the facilities. In 1997, a gunman went on a rampage against Planned Parenthood clinics in Boston, killing two people and wounding five others.

In the midst of these exchanges about online and offline harassment, there have also been many solemn declarations that such abuse is the "price we pay" for free speech, or even more grandly, for a free society.

There's much to be debated in this assertion, at least for those who believe that principles of free speech cannot really be reduced to a bumper-sticker sentiment. We might want to discuss the multiple contradictions and inconsistencies within First Amendment jurisprudence, or how easily the concept of free speech can be appropriated for thoroughly incompatible ends, or the frequent conflation of the obligations of government and private entities. But I want to focus primarily on one part of this assertion here: the patronizing and dishonest use of the word "we."

Hess's article and many others have highlighted the gendered dimension of online harassment: Though online harassment can be aimed at anyone, "the vilest communications are still disproportionately lobbed at women." This has been borne out by numerous sources, including by men who only realize just how different the online world is for women by gaining direct experience of it.

As Hess wrote, "This type of gendered harassment -- and the sheer volume of it -- has severe implications for women's status on the Internet. Threats of rape, death and stalking can overpower our emotional bandwidth, take up our time, and cost us money through legal fees, online protection services, and missed wages."

Hess noted that a Pew study "found that from 2000 to 2005, the percentage of Internet users who participate in online chats and discussion groups dropped from 28 percent to 17 percent, 'entirely because of women's fall off in participation.'"

Amanda Marcotte observed that gendered online harassment is an extension of gendered offline harassment, of "the constant drumbeat of harassment and violence that women around the world face -- and have always faced -- for no other reason than they are women. Women are abused on the streets, in our workplaces, and in our homes. That we are also abused online shouldn't be surprising at all. The Internet presents new challenges, but the problem of misogyny is the same as it ever was."

The supposed "free speech" at issue in abortion clinic buffer zones is also gendered. It is not aimed at men and women equally. It is primarily women and girls who must endure the gauntlet of abuse, threats, physical intimidation and violence. Moreover, they must confront this abuse while seeking medical assistance, a time when every person should be afforded privacy and dignity.

As Marcotte pointed out, "It's hard to imagine that the 'right' to get into people's faces would be defended at all, if the targets were anyone but young women being castigated for their sexual choices."

In other words, harassment is not the price that "we" pay for free speech. It is the price that certain groups and not others pay. And that price includes, in many cases, the denial of free speech and other rights to those groups. When women's decisions about their own bodies are subjected to the scrutiny and aggression of strangers, when they have to fear that engaging in intimate activity might mean the ruin of their future professional or personal reputation, when they are driven out of online or offline spaces, their rights to free speech and expression are undermined.

Free speech elitism is the pretense that "everyone" shares equally in the costs and benefits of unfettered expression, when in reality the powerful receive the benefits while the marginalized bear the costs. Free speech elitists urge "tolerance" for toxic expression because they know the burden of this tolerance will not fall on them. In the case of sexualized harassment and abortion clinic protests, it is overwhelmingly women who pay the price of tolerance. In other cases of toxic speech, it is often racial and sexual minorities who pay the price. As Mari Matsuda has written, the tolerance of toxic expression "is not borne by the community at large. It is a psychic tax imposed on those least able to pay."

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