Phil Friedman in Communications and journalism, Marketing, English Writer/Editor | Marketer | Ghost Writer | Marine Industry and Small-Business Consultant • Port Royal Group Jan 7, 2017 · 5 min read · 3.4K

On the Limits of Free Expression

On the Limits of Free Expression


The issue of what is and what isn't acceptable expression on social media comes up frequently, particularly on platforms such as LinkedIn and beBee, each of which exhibits its own brand of aversion to contentious discussion. contentious discussion. beBee, each of which exhibits its own brand of aversion to contentious discussion. beBee, each of which exhibits its own brand of aversion to contentious discussion. contentious discussion. beBee, each of which exhibits its own brand of aversion to contentious discussion.

LinkedIn, styles itself as a vehicle for "professional" networking and engagement. And as such, discourages dissent and argument as being essentially counter-productive to the building of a strong "personal brand."

In contrast, BeBee encourages engagement on a much broader range of fronts — colloquially referred to as "passions" —  and tolerates a much broader range of styles and voices, from the very academic and straight-laced business types to the creative and street-wise, almost hip hop jive of musicians, artists, and writers. However, beBee nevertheless officially pushes "positivity" as a predominating network value.

Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are often criticized for their tolerance of "nasty" comments and "ugly" criticisms of people and the posts and updates they publish — and of late for their tolerance of all manner of "fake" news. The problem has grown to such proportions that many people are "gun shy" and react with horror to even the mildest form of dissenting comment. 

The result is that the lines have been blurred between legitimate dissent and disagreement, and bona fide "troll" attacks...

There is no doubt that bona fide troll attacks have troubled and upset large numbers of social media users, in fact, driven some from various platforms. For many of these attacks have been targeted at individuals and repeated to such a degree as to cross the line into outright bullying and stalking.

However, at the same time, some users have employed unfounded claims of trolling and bullying as a tool to silence those with whom they simply disagree and those who simply disagree with them...

In the final analysis, it is not the statements and comments which we like to read and hear that test our commitment to free speech. It is the comments and opinions we abhor, and our tolerance for that with which we disagree, which hold our feet to the fire in the issue of Freedom of Expression.

Freedom of Expression is a basic human right memorialized under Article 19 of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights...

We read and hear a lot about the question of how far freedom of speech and expression extends.

In the United States, for example, freedom of speech is constitutionally guaranteed and is pretty free-ranging, especially when it comes to the expression of political ideas and opinions.  Indeed, by virtue the nation's Constitution and legal precedents developed in the decisions of the Courts, you can in the U.S. say with impunity just about anything you want concerning a public political figure, irrespective of whether or not what you say is libelous.

To be sure, the Courts in the U.S. have agreed that even free expression has its limits. In Schenck v. United States  (1919), the U.S. Supreme Court held that it was a violation of Anti-Espionage legislation for Schenk to distribute pamphlets opposing conscription. It was in the majority opinion for this case that Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the famous line that the right of free speech does not justify "...falsely shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater."

Then, in 1969, the Schenck decision was later overturned in Brandenburg v. Ohio which limited the scope of banned expression to what would be intended and likely to incite imminent lawless action, for example,  a riot. This, in effect, broadened and strengthened further the U.S. constitutional protection of free expression.

Yet, with all the socio-political discussion of, and argument over free expression — something that itself would not be possible without the original Constitutional guarantees I have never once read or heard anyone question whether there is a right to be heard or listened to.

I guess that's because most people will probably think the question is asinine. I know I do.

For to my mind, it is a self-evident truth that everyone has the right to speak, but that ... nobody is under any obligation to listen or reply...

I've been on social media as a writer and blogger for more than a decade, now. And I have to admit, it took me almost that entire length of time to realize the futility of engaging in verbal fisticuffs with most of those who mount ad hominem attacks on my posts, or inject blatant non-sequiturs, or insist on arguing against straw-man reconstructions of what I've written.

Because what most of those who post such remarks want is attention. They want to use my (your) posts as a vehicle to reach members of my audience, my connections and followers, and those who may be drawn to reading my posts. And what I finally came to realize is that responding to them — however amusing it may be to me — only gives them precisely what they want. Namely, it helps to draw attention to, and distribute their remarks to an audience which they would not otherwise reach.

Understand that I am not speaking of those who disagree with my ideas and opinions. As the gods know full well, if I refused to engage with those who legitimately disagree with me, I wouldn't be conversing much with anybody — including members of my immediate family, bless their little Venusian hearts! No, the fact is, on-point discussion of ideas and opinions is something I live for, especially online.

Whether consciously or otherwise, social media trolls employ the same strategy as Disruption Marketers...

A savvy disruption marketer, such as Candice 🐝 Galek, seeks attention for that which she or he is marketing by provoking both positive and negative reaction. For even the posting of a negative comment on a post works to distribute that post further afield, throughout the networks of those who express exception to the post involved.

Of course, to really make that work in the commercial sector, a disruptive marketer has to engage with the responses, as does Candice, with a high level of charm and humor, so that the ensuing argumentative engagement becomes a fun event for most, if not all who follow it. But that is to digress.

My point is that trolls don't really care about what you say. For them, an exchange is only an opportunity for them to tell your readers about themselves — what they prefer, what they like, what they think ... even when what they think has absolutely nothing to do with the topic at hand.

So, early in 2016, I made it a personal policy not to respond to aggressive off-point commenters, especially repeaters, on my posts. In the comment threads of my own posts, I always engage with genuine, on-point disagreement, even if it is heated.  And people who misunderstand or misconstrue what I am saying still get a thank you for reading and commenting if their remarks are reasonably civil. But I have trained myself — and yes, "trained" is exactly the right word — to ignore the repeatedly pushy, self-impressed, and strictly-self promotional trolls whose remarks are invariably off-point or off-topic.

Of course, fair is fair.  So with my new policy of ignoring trolls who comment on my posts, I also began a parallel policy of not making critical or disagreeing comments on the posts of others, unless 1) the author has invited me via a tag or otherwise to do so, or 2) is someone with whom I regular exchange opinions, or 3) is someone who I am sure has a thick enough skin not to be "injured" by my expression of disagreement.

Well mostly, that is. There are a few rare times when I simply cannot contain myself. As when I see some self-declared expert giving out some piece of advice that from my own training and experience I know to be false and potentially harmful. Such times are growing more rare day by day, though, not because there are fewer instances, but because my self-discipline is improving.

So, you would think I've now got it all pretty well sorted out ... NOT!

Lately, I've run into a new phenomenon. Aggressive, off-point and off-topic commenters who accuse me of committing some sort of social media faux pas by not taking their bait to debate. Like they have an inalienable right to intrude into the comments thread of one of my posts are a somehow harmed by me when I choose not to respond to their bull chip remark(s).

Actually, considered from an ethically neutral vantage point, it's an almost brilliant tactic. Much like that of the Tar Baby in The Story of Bre'r Rabbit.  The logic of it is so convoluted, that to attempt to muster arguments against it would only ensnare one hopelessly in endless back-and-forths — which again would be to play into the hands of those who avail themselves of such absurdities.

Consequently, here's what I am resolved to do going forward when such assertions come up. (And you are welcome to use my suggestion when and how you wish.) I am simply going to exercise my prerogative as a "bee" and tell such people politely to "buzzz off."  — Phil Friedman

Afterword:  If you haven't guessed by now, although based on factual information and experiences, this piece is written at least partly tongue in cheek. It is not directed at anyone in particular, and if you are moved to take it that way, well ... you might just ask yourself why that is the case. For if the shoe doesn't fit, why in the world would you insist on wearing it?   —  PLF

Author's Notes: If you found this post interesting and worthwhile, and would like to receive notifications of my writings on a regular basis, click the [FOLLOW] button on my beBee profile. Better yet, elect there to follow my blog by email. As a writer-friend of mine says, you can always change your mind later.

Should you be curious about some of my other writings on social media, you're invited to take a look at the following:

"The Ethical and Functional Bankruptcy of Influencer Marketing"

"Time to Break All Connections On Social Media"

"Reflections on Social Media"

"Building Engagement on Social Media"

As well, feel free to "like" and "share" this post and my other articles — whether on beBee, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or Google+, provided only that you credit me properly as the author, and include a live link to my original post.

About me, Phil FriedmanWith 30 some years background in the marine industry, I've worn numerous hats — as a yacht designer, boat builder, marine operations and business manager, marine industry consultant, marine marketing and communications specialist, yachting magazine writer and editor, yacht surveyor, and marine industry educator. I am also trained and experienced in interest-based negotiation and mediation.

In a previous life, I was formally trained as an academic philosopher and taught logic and philosophy at university.


Before writing comes thinking.  ( The optional-to-read pitch) :  

As a professional writer, editor, university educator, and speaker, with more than 1,000 print and digital publications, I've recently launched an online program for enhancing your expository writing: learn2engage — With Confidence. My mission is to help writers and would-be writers improve their thought and writing, master the logic of discussion, and strengthen their ability to deal with disagreement... all of which I have found to be natural precursors to improved writing.

For more information, click on the image immediately above. And to schedule an appointment for a free 1/2-hour consult email: I look forward to speaking with you soon.

Text Copyright © 2016 by Phil Friedman  —  All Rights Reserved
Image Credits: Phil Friedman, Google Images, and

Phil Friedman Sep 7, 2017 · #87

#86 Thank you, @Ali 🐝 Anani, Brand Ambassador @beBee for sharing this piece.


Just shared the post because it makes lots of sense.

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Donna-Luisa Eversley Jan 23, 2017 · #85

User removed

Phil Friedman Jan 9, 2017 · #84

#81 What was that you said, Jim Saelzler?

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Phil Friedman Jan 9, 2017 · #82

#80 Excellent simile, Pascal. It's where I've finally arrived after several years. 1) On MY posts I speak my mind. If you come onto my post to comment, then expect that I will respond. If you don't want that, don't come to the comments on MY posts. And let's drop the "Phil's a meany and started it all when he hit me back." 2) I am making an extra effort to respect the sensitivities of others these days by not making critical comments on the posts of others unless a) I've been invited to comment by a tag or a shout out, or b) I have an established relationship with the author of the post and know he or she will accept the critical comment for what it is. 3) I leave it to management to eject rowdy, obnoxious fellow-customers — although I personally prefer that management exercise that prerogative sparingly. Thanks for joining the conversation. You make a lot of sense, as usual.

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Jim Saelzler Jan 9, 2017 · #81

But dammit Phil, if I want to tell you something you have to listen!

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Pascal Derrien Jan 9, 2017 · #80

I was thinking in very practical terms that social media is you do what you want in your own house, you respect other users in a public park and the management reserves the right to admission to the restaurant providing you comply with basic rules of engagement otherwise you can be escorted out thru the exit door... :-)

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Mohammed Sultan Jan 9, 2017 · #79

#77 Yes,Phil-Sometimes you have to focus on what you do like rather than preventing what you don't like.Thank you for your reply.

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