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!