Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences

I believe the principle of freedom of speech should not and cannot be free from negative consequences. I believe this is true regardless of whether we interpret freedom of speech to mean the 1st amendment of the U.S. Constitution or a more general natural right to free speech.

To see why, first note that speech is not harmless or consequence-free. If speech were inconsequential we wouldn’t fight so hard to defend speech in the first place! Quite the opposite: speech is so consequential, so volatile, that we recognize that free speech can be a powerful force for good (and for evil). This mirrors how widespreading ownership of weapons can be highly consequential and be used to both defend and deprive people of their life and liberty.

When we exercise our freedom of speech we hope that doing so will lead to positive consequences (for ourselves or others), but our speech may lead to negative consequences (for ourselves or others). We cannot expect society to entrust us with the former privilege without accepting responsibility for the latter risk.

Who holds us accountable for using such a consequential tool responsibly for good? The American approach is to democratize the accountability process by neutering the government as much as possible and entrusting private individuals and private organizations to hold each other accountable to act responsibly.

However, we cannot reasonably expect nobody to hold us accountable for our speech. If we enjoy the privilege of consequential speech then, by symmetry, so do others, and they may speak in ways that may lead to negative consequences for ourselves. The only way to truly enjoy speech free from consequences is to only permit inconsequential speech, which defeats the original purpose behind defending free speech.