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Innovation

Freedom in the balance

Is getting fired for writing a blog on your company a violation of freedom of speech?
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Written by Brian Haverty, Contributor on

commentary Is getting fired for writing a blog on your company a violation of freedom of speech?
You know how when words get bandied about too much, they begin to lose their meaning? Like love, or high-performance... or enlarge. Four-letter words don't even have the impact they used to, now that they're a part of just about every show on TV (and it doesn't really bother me that they are, it's just interesting to see how it changes the impact).
Then there are words that have different meanings depending on where you are. I'm fortunate that I find the "schooner" glass a comfortable size for my beer, because if I had to remember the different names of the smaller-sized glasses, I'd have to switch to cans. As far as I'm concerned, when I'm drinking the only "pot" I should have to worry about is the one resting on my belt buckle.
When I'm drinking, the only "pot" I should have to worry about is the one resting on my belt buckle.

The word that fascinates me most these days is "freedom". I can't think of any other word that has so many meanings and is used so consistently in attempts to stir up emotion. It worked in that scene from Braveheart and it's continuing to work today.
It's shouted as an absolute -- a thing that should be the same and mean the same for everyone. But how can that be? What about freedom of speech? Can we really say anything we want? Everyone knows you can't yell fire in a crowded theatre when there is no fire. I can no longer send an unsolicited e-mail to 1.2 million "friends" asking them all to send me a dollar. But I do have the freedom to say what I think about certain political leaders who claim they are bringing "freedom" to other countries -- countries where going to the polls to vote could very well get those citizens blown up. So is the freedom they now have the same freedom we have?

The Internet provides a platform for freedom, right? OK, maybe not. It's a balance of freedoms and limitations. I can send and receive messages for "free" but I can't use the Internet to send unsolicited spam. Though complaints about pornography on the Internet are going up, the number of actual sites is going down, thanks in large part to legislation passed regarding these sites.

You want true freedom online, blogs are the way to go, right? Well, er, no. Earlier this year, Mark Jen was "terminated" from Google for blogging about life at the company. Several other fairly high-profile firings have followed at other companies. How dare they try to stifle free speech! But are they? Sure, companies may be a bit uncomfortable about what employees might be saying to the world about what the company is doing, but they still have a say over how their employees used company resources on company time, don't they?
It's several years old now, but do you remember the "Bill of No Rights" that made the e-mail rounds? It was written by Lewis Napper over 10 years ago, and includes gems like "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that a whole lot of people are confused by the [US] Bill of Rights and are so dim that they require a Bill of No Rights" and "Article II: You do not have the right to never be offended. This country is based on freedom, and that means freedom for everyone -- not just you! You may leave the room, change the channel, or express a different opinion, but the world is full of idiots, and probably always will be".
What I especially liked was Napper's description of why he decided to put it together in the first place: "It seemed to me that every time the government attempted to 'give' everyone some new right, we all actually wound up losing rights. When the government gave everyone the 'right to never be offended,' we lost our rights to free speech."
Freedom's a wonderful goal, and the Internet brings us new ways to express freedoms, as long as they are balanced by common sense.
Brian Haverty is Editorial Director of ZDNet Australia. Give him a piece of your mind at edit@zdnet.com.au.

This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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