Free Speech and Speech in Context

Free Speech is enshrined in, among other places, the First Amendment in the United States Bill of Rights:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution passed by Congress September 25, 1789. Ratified December 15, 1791.

This is understood as a protection against government censorship and regulation of speech and expression:

“The First Amendment only prevents government restrictions on speech. It does not prevent restrictions on speech imposed by private individuals or businesses. Facebook and other social media can regulate or restrict speech hosted on their platforms because they are private entities.” American Library Association - Censorship

Even in the case of governments, there are usually limitations on speech:

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. offered the classic example of the line between protected and unprotected speech in Schenck when he observed that shouting “Fire!” in a theater where there is none is not protected speech. Categories of unprotected speech also include: libel and slander, “fighting words,” obscenity, and sedition. The First Amendment Encyclopedia

The United States is of course just a representative example. Many countries protect free speech.

Outside of government protection of freedom of speech, we move into the many contexts in which speech can occur. In each of those contexts, the purpose/aim of that context is identified, and speech is guided/limited in pursuit of that aim.

For instance, if you’ve had a job, you’ve been in an environment where speech is limited. The goals of businesses are profit, efficiency, service/product quality, team morale and cohesion, limitation of liability, etc. So, for instance, my adult worklife a limitation on speech at work (whether expressed directly or tacitly) was don’t talk about religion or politics. The limitation on free speech regarding religion and politics actually makes it possible to have a more robust conversation around the goals of the business, as we’re not getting pulled into personal squabbles about things not relevant to work.

Mental Health Services have therapeutic goals, and to support them they need to prioritize emotional safety. So if they run a support group, member free speech is not a key objective, emotional safety for all members is. And, once they have emotional safety, it allows for a more robust conversation about the issues that members are dealing with, because they feel safe expressing them.

Universities are a context that requires a nuanced balance. A claim can be made that free speech is an important value in a university setting, as exposure to the full range of ideas and the arguments against those ideas is part of being educated. Even there free speech absolutism isn’t the standard approach. If universities become emotionally (and even physically) unsafe environments for students of diverse backgrounds, not just those students but the educational community as a whole suffers. It loses access to the full range of ideas and experiences of those students it alienates by not creating an environment where they can feel welcome, learn, share, and thrive.

As a Buddhist forum, it makes sense that here the goal of Right Speech is more important than the goal of Free Speech. And as a place that has the goal of being welcoming and supportive to the diverse range of Buddhists that exist in the world, it makes sense that emotional safety is given priority over free speech. In this context, moderation - including flagging and hiding certain posts - supports the goals of the forum. It makes the conversations that this forum wants to support and welcome possible, by removing posts that would potentially alienate a diverse community of participants.

The context of this forum exists within a larger social context in which “LGBTQ youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers” (The Trevor Project 15-Dec-2021), “Indigenous women and girls are at a disproportionate risk and face among the highest rates of violent and non-violent victimization of all population groups in Canada” (StatsCan 19-May-2021), police stop and use force disprotionately against Black people (Nature 19-June-2020). For many systemic biases aren’t a “topic to debate on the Internet” - they are real, ongoing power imbalances that lead to violence and death.

Now, someone on the poitical right might say that this forum doesn’t encourage a diversity of speech from the conservative/right perspective. That’s probably true. But for many of us, welcoming and encouraging speech from those who have been historically marginalized and who still deal with systemic bias against them is a more important goal than allowing an opposing statement from those who (often) historically and currently benefit from those systemic biases, and whose statements (often) ultimately come down on the side of retaining the status quo of systemic bias. So where the opinion expressed has the potential to make someone who has been historically and currently marginalized feel emotionally unsafe, a space with the goals of this forum is going to value their emotional safety over your opinion.

Not all Buddhist forums and groups are structured this way. I’m a member of some Buddhist communities that don’t allow discussion of politics at all. And some - which I’m not a member of - seem to value unrestricted speech over emotional safety. Create your own forum and you get to structure it the way you want.

But it seems silly to complain about the decisions this forum makes in terms of what gets flagged/deleted, what choices are made in moderation, etc., and to pretend it is somehow a free speech or “robust debate” or “mods are unfair” issue. This isn’t a free speech zone. This isn’t a debating club, where debate is encouraged as an end in itself. This is a context with goals of Right Speech and welcoming diverse (in particular potentially marginalized) Buddhists, and its moderation policies support those goals.

A big thanks to all the Moderators for supporting this great space! Sadhu sadhu sadhu! :pray:


Not everyone on the right is a libertarian. Some conservatives believe that free speech has limits, and I’m not talking about the far right here but traditional Burkean conservative types. Personally, in terms of society I think we should have as much free speech as possible. I quite like the First Amendment. When it comes to online Buddhist forums however I don’t want that level of free speech. I want to discuss things relating to Dhamma. I don’t want an anything goes sort of approach, as inevitably that leads to chaos. Over at DhammaWheel there are rules that restrict certain types of speech, homophobia and the like or even promoting Mahayana (since it’s a Theravadin discussion forum). It’s like if we join a club. There are rules in place for certain behaviour and rules to keep things relevant to why the club exists in the first place. No point joining a book club if you are going to be rude to everyone and promote games over books. Yes, freedom of speech in society but also freedom of association and freedom to set limits regarding that association.

Regarding the topic in question, I think it’s perfectly valid to ask if the Vinaya allows x or y. It’s best to know what it says first and then decide how we feel about it. That’s the honest approach. On the question of trans ordination, personally I have no idea what the Vinaya position is. It’s obviously a sensitive issue though, that needs to be handled with care and respect for others. Once again, the Brahamaviharas are our guide. I think that’s true for everyone involved. I was told recently that Pa Auk wouldn’t ordain someone like me, because I’m homosexual. Whilst I don’t agree with that, by relying upon the Brahamaviharas it didn’t hurt or upset me at all.


As a moderator, I appreciate the sentiment behind this thread. However, I put it on slow mode, since the topic is likely to court controversy, and I want to head off any rehashing of some of the more controversial topics that have arisen here.


Good point, thank you. I do think more understanding on the left of the flavors of conservative thought - libertarian vs Classical Liberalism (e.g., John Stewart Mill’s On Liberty) vs Hayek and the ethical issues of a command vs free market economy vs Edumnd Burke - would be a wonderful step towards making communication more productive. I personally love Burke - he is a great writer and thinker.

For what it’s worth, while topics I’ve seen on the board have informed this post, I was trying very hard to make a general observation, not comment on a particular issue already being discussed elsewhere.

I’m sorry. I don’t agree with it either. I’m glad you were able to find comfort in the Brahmaviharas.


Burke is great. It’s interesting that unlike other great political thinkers he never actually sets up a political ideology like what we see with say Marx or Mill, to pick random but contrasting thinkers. Rather he makes observations.

For what it’s worth, while topics I’ve seen on the board have informed this post, I was trying very hard to make a general observation, not comment on a particular issue already being discussed elsewhere.

Yes, reading back that was a bit clumsy of me. Getting back to your OP then, I agree that online forums don’t have to have a free speech policy (nor do real life Buddhist groups either). Regarding this forum, on politics most members and the page in general leans towards a particular side of the political spectrum. And that’s absolutely fine. It’s not my page, and I agreed to the terms & conditions when I joined. Personally there are some aspects of it that I’m not fully on board with, but people can run it or moderate it as they wish. Regardless though, I can see that there are good intentions behind how this is all set up and that’s something to rejoice in. There are also good intentions with how other forums are set up too, no doubt. Anyway I somewhat think of myself as a guest here. If I don’t like the host’s rules, then I can leave. I’m going to stay though, at least for the foreseeable, as there are some interesting discussions to be had here.

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I think there is an issue with limiting speech based on sensitivity concerns. One side just has to claim extreme sensitivity and it shuts down all debate. If someone is like the princess in the story of the “Princess and the Pea” and can’t sleep because there is a pea under twenty mattresses than expecting everyone to accommodate that person’s sensitivity comes at too high a price for society to bare. Most likely it is a pretense for a power grab or the individual has a much bigger mental health issue that needs to be addressed so that person learns to cope.

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My past experience from being a moderator makes me think that it’s users who aren’t able to practice right speech that tend to be extremely sensitive. They’re extremely sensitive to being asked to moderate their speech, and they basically flip out and accuse the mods of being fascists or communists or a conspiracy trying to hide the “real Dhamma” that this user is merely propounding, and the interaction ends with the user going “I’m never coming back here again!!”.

IMO, people from minoritized groups tend to have extremely thick skin, it’s something that’s developed as a survival strategy.

This is a good example of how abusive behavior towards vulnerable minoritized people is rationalized; it’s not that they’re really being harmed, they’re actually just trying to grab power or are mentally ill.

Also, notice the inconsistency of this reasoning as well: minoritized groups are both

  1. incredibly powerful (they’re grabbing power over society) or / at the same time
  2. incredibly weak (they’re so sensitive because they’re mentally ill and can’t cope)

This has it all! Communism, the abstract “activists’” real motivation is to take over society, the Pizzagate-esque protecting the abstract children from the abstract predators. What the right wing actually did (like McCarthyism) – the left is now somehow doing it.

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Thread closed following moderator discussion.