Freedom Of Speech Should Not Protect Hate Speech—Or Violent Threats Online

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It was the day before my birthday when extremists shot up the offices of “satire” magazine Charlie Hebdo, murdering 12 people, many of whom didn’t even work there. People immediately rallied around the victims with “Je Suis Charlie,” bemoaning how violence attempts to silence free speech. My heart went out to those who were murdered and their families, but I also questioned the idea that hate speech was protected under “free speech,” or that it should be. I feel rather strongly that humor should punch up towards the powerful, not down on the marginalized. I didn’t see anyone discussing that viewpoint, so I posted that I found it incredibly disappointing that on my social media, I saw a bunch of white people “standing up” for the “bravery” of a racist magazine to incite hatred against people of color. I said that I understood why decades of hurt, fear, and institutionalized abuse may lead to a violent reaction, even if I disagreed with it. I posted and walked away, preparing for birthday celebrations, not thinking much of it.

Freedom of speech, right?

My inbox almost immediately started filling with threats, starting slow with only three or four an hour, and eventually going up to 10 or so. I was told that I deserved to be slowly tortured for writing a blog like that, that what I was saying was the same as rape apologism, that it was wrong of me to raise questions about the deification of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. I got threatened with having my personal information released. I received many triggering messages, particularly relating to sexual violence and my being a sex worker. And I read most of them with a horrified fascination, at times deleting as quickly as they came in, because if I’m honest, I knew this storm was coming.

After a day of constant harassment, I wrote a supplemental piece clarifying some points and underlining others, feeling the need to justify myself. I closed down comments on my blog to protect myself somewhat. I went and got a manicure as my phone continued to buzz from the email barrage.

Freedom of speech always comes at a price—whatever its fan club says—and that price becomes steeper the more marginalized you are. As a fat queer sex worker, I certainly expected the price would be threats of rape, but as a white cis woman I am less worried that someone will find out where I live and attempt to shoot me. I keep writing anyway. I carry a switchblade, and I keep writing. I Google my name to see if I’ve been doxxed again, and I keep writing.

Fighting for social justice is the hill I have chosen to die on. I made a strategic choice that I was going to continue to speak out when I saw things that seemed fucked up, that I wanted to challenge racism, cissexism, misogyny, classism. My privilege meant it was a hill I could defend better than others with less privilege. But it’s not a safe hill, by any means. I made the choice to be out about my sex work and to speak from that perspective knowing that the consequences could include being threatened, raped, arrested, deported, made homeless, made unemployable, alone and undefended. And it has led to a good number of those things—I have dealt with some serious and horrible threats to my life, like the rejected client who would text me regularly to tell me how sad it was how many sex workers died every year. It would be easy to retreat, to change my name, to stop writing, but I dig my feet in and keep fighting, because for me, this is the stand I want to take, consequences be damned.

I’ve watched what’s happened to other outspoken women. We live in a society where a woman ignoring a catcall can be murdered. I know that my freedom of speech might harm me some day. I do what I can to minimize the impact on my family, on my lovers, on my friends. I also inform them when there’s a threat, and I take them very seriously. Thankfully, they, too, support me in this battle, and fight with me. It’s a choice we make consciously and together.

I support freedom of speech, but I do not feel that hate speech should be protected. I don’t feel that doxxing should be protected. I don’t feel that Gamergate’s constant threats of women should be protected. And we know this, because we arrest people for tweeting about bombing an airport, so why don’t we take these constant threats against women that seriously? When we talk about freedom of speech, who is free to speak? Who are we defending? Are they the privileged?

The “freedom of speech” hill is a binary hill, where you either have all freedoms or none. It’s not a hill I’m willing to die on. I don’t feel humans can be trusted with that level of responsibility when that “freedom of speech” has been used to defend racist incitements to violence, abuse of trans women, threatening the safety of women.

Maybe when people are consistently held responsible for the consequences of their speech, I’ll be on board.

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