It’s incredibly hard for me to feel sympathy when someone like Richard Dawkins is disinvited from a keynote speaker slot because of the way he behaves (the conference rescinded, but that’s beside the point).
The theme of attacks on his critics is that such disinvitation represents harm to his freedom of speech.
The man is a bestselling author, has numerous TV specials, is a frequent talk show guest, established speaker, and has over a million followers on Twitter. His free speech rights and ability to exercise them are utterly unassailable.
This did get me thinking about how and when a disinvitation could potentially be harmful to free speech. What kept coming to mind are activists from nations with severe restrictions on speech and Internet use. If your government is telling you what not to say and preventing you from taking the obvious route to publicly disagree, there is an obvious free speech problem. So, maybe if the speaker you’re considering disinviting fits into this scenario it would be a bad move to remove a platform. This is obviously a simplified approach to what is a real life problem too big to solve with a speech at a conference. But it’s worth looking for how and to what degree you may be wrong.
But what if we took the free speech claim at face value, but we took it a bit father and looked at who we invite to speak and not just who we ask not to. If our goal is to use our platform to advance free speech, why not give speaking positions to people of color and trans people? Or members of minority religions that Donald Trump wants to deport? Hell, if GamerGate showed us anything is that cis women are often silenced by threats and harassment. Maybe we should not invite cis men to speak until we resolve the disparity in who can speak without fear.
Some of this makes sense to weigh in the decision making process. Some people are poorly represented in public life, or are vilified. If we are going to worry about the free speech of a rich guy with a large and devoted audience, why aren’t we worried about people who are prevented in one way or another from having a platform?