Online content blurs lines between free speech and bullying

Illustration by Alex Solecki

Alex Solecki

Illustration by Alex Solecki

Alex Solecki, columnist

We’ve all done it. Scrolled by that controversial tweet, held our tongue, maybe even wished we’d never seen the blasphemous mockery of an opinion that was forever posted online. But what about when you don’t hold your tongue? When you decide to enter the conversation? When you type back?

Free speech rocks. I mean, like, really. This is a columnist speaking. Sometimes, though, the defense of someone’s free speech gets tricky because the lines between speaking freely and verbal harassment are blurry ones. I think that’s where we get caught up in the world of online trolling.

I started considering this when my government class discussed freedom. More importantly, we argued the inevitable limitations we must have on our freedoms in order to really be free. Confusing, I know.

You’re free to share your opinion online… fine print: as long as what you say is not a threat of attack, libel and slander, intent of anarchy on the US government, proclamation of love for country music, cold-blooded malice, cyber-bullying or harassment… and the list goes on.

At the end of the day, though, do you think that these things really have a place on the internet anyways? (Okay minus the country one. Sorry CT-ers out there.)

Personally… I don’t think so. That’s why we put limitations on each others’ freedoms. Complete freedom to say whatever you want infringes upon another’s freedom to not be harassed on the internet. The notion that we have a total freedom to share our opinions in whatever way we want online can sometimes bleed into the idea that saying something malicious is always defendable. It isn’t.

Some might argue that freedom of speech should allow you to express yourself in any way: if you feel angry, why should you not be able to express that online? That’s the blurry line.

There isn’t a rulebook stating what is and isn’t an “offensive” opinion, and we could go on about the victimization and over-offense-taking generation that’s emerging. A lot of the time, though, it just comes down to whether what you are saying could be said in a better way.

Most of the time (though not always), when I’ve witnessed threads on threads of trolls on the internet, the conversation started out as just that – a conversation. But when emotions started heating up, people edited their word choices less and less… they got so desperate to win an argument that they cared less about what they were saying, and more about hurting the other person in an attempt to be—or rather feel—right.

Basically, the point of no return occurs when the argument gets reduced to an insult flinging crap shoot.

Mind you, this isn’t just online—physically speaking words is the same deal. The thing is, as we all know so well, what you say online is permanent. You can never take back your words, and that’s what makes them free­—but online, it’s much harder to get around the watchful eyes of everyone who also saw those words. Posting online, you’re not typing to just one person—you’re writing to the world.

I love hearing what you guys have to say. I don’t mean to say people should be so scared of offending someone online that they stop saying what they think, whether that’s posting something or typing a response. But, as always, be human. What’s unique about conversations online is that you have the ability to type, delete, edit and read over something before posting it, versus real life where words have an annoying way of coming out on their own accord.  

I’ve made the same mistake. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it to learn to use your free speech in a constructive way, without letting your feelings and word choices distract from what you feel you need to say. Where do you draw the line?