Flashback to the dawn of 2015, when free speech was one of the number one trending topics on Twitter and Facebook. It dominated the evening news and the front pages of newspapers. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, freedom of speech has been raised to the sky as the true symbol of the “free world”; it has been portrayed as the last bastion of our under-attack liberties, to be protected at all costs. Through media and social media campaigns, it has been repackaged into a cause that anyone felt compelled to join – and this has resulted in displays of “unity” not only in the virtual world but also, for a change, in the streets of cities worldwide.
A few weeks later the trend faded and everybody moved on to other preoccupations, the social media world taken by storm by newer beliefs that could be embraced with a few mouse clicks. Freshly dusted off and shined, free speech had already been put back on the shelf.
In January 2015, freedom of speech had its time in the spotlight; it was suddenly cool again. What is left now that the signs have been lowered and the slogans have disappeared? We wanted to defend free speech so badly, but what is it we were really protecting? And against whom?
There are many considerations to make here; I will limit myself to two. The fist point may seem self-evident but it’s worth repeating: like all other fundamental liberties, freedom of speech is a right that exists primarily to protect citizens against the state, which cannot legally silence its people through censorship or other repressive measures. The fact that private citizens might harm each other in the name of ideas (and reducing our freedom can be part of the motives of those who do harm) is a completely different issue: we are talking about violent crimes and private justice, which are punishable under regular criminal laws and procedures.
When celebrating the importance of free speech, it is an easy temptation to call up examples of horrible things that happen (or have happened) in places where such rights are not guaranteed. But these examples involve government action (public or covert) or actions by the people in power. The only true threat to freedom of speech as a fundamental right is internal – it starts with the government applying censorship, and ends with undesired people disappearing in the middle of the night.
So when people are claiming that free speech must be defended at all costs, but they are not angry at their own government, what they really want is more protection against crimes aimed at restricting free speech – or to avoid the atmosphere of fear that such crimes generate, and which may lead people to auto-censor themselves. 
These are honest prerogatives, but in January 2015, they became muffled by the spectacular celebration of free speech as a global ideal. Which brings me to my second consideration: there seems to be little wrong in championing something as pure and beautiful as free speech – one almost feels a duty to participate.
But the problem of spectacular celebrations of ideals is that they often neglect the concrete role and function of those ideals in our society. When we talk about free speech today, we talk of free speech in a corporate-owned world where much of what happens is dictated by economic interests.
We have recently seen a situation where people rose up to defend a private company (Sony, who had been threatened by hackers not to release a comedy movie called The Interview) in the name of freedom of speech. Even president Obama chipped in, using a rhetoric reminiscent of Bush’s post 9-11 crusade. When the film finally opened in theatres, moviegoers were quoted claiming that they went to see it because they wanted to make a pro-free speech gesture; what they were actually achieving was helping Sony recoup their losses.
Freedom of speech was born to give voice and power to street protestors; today it still does that, but it also justifies dishonest political campaigns, media distortion of events, aggressive advertising, forms of racism and discrimination, and the propagation of lies. It can be used to inform, disinform, inspire, offend, and yes, also as a tool to promote personal interests – financial, political, or what you will. There are no official guidelines about how to use freedom of speech in a ethic and responsible way - and this is how it should be: the larger and more encompassing the freedom, the better. 
But when it comes to championing something, wouldn’t we be better off supporting and fighting for the values that make rights such as freedom of speech worth having, rather than glorifying the idea itself, and close our eyes to its paradoxes and contradictions? Free speech is only worth anything if it exists within a culture that promotes and celebrates values such as honesty, integrity, tolerance, truthfulness, and selflessness – not individualism and personal gain.
When the time comes for free speech to have another moment of glory, we should bring these issues in the spotlight too, instead of mindlessly waving the flag. 
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