14 November 2009

Free speech, hate speech

(Updated -- see below.)

This posting at The Swash Zone raises, among other issues, the problem of inflammatory rhetoric which carries a serious risk of inspiring actual violence:

I recently took this a step further on another blog, suggesting that the increasing violence in this country might be related to the increasing level of violent, angry rhetoric and use of shockingly violent images along with the spreading of rumors, lies and innuendo. And, predictably, the first amendment was dutifully trotted out.....

It is one thing to disagree and voice your opinion. It is quite another to spread lies and call for violent action. So, when do we cross the line from first amendment protected free speech to harassment, libel, slander and inciting violence? Or does the first amendment mean that anything goes?

My reaction to this:

Freedom of expression doesn't extend to actual libel and slander, anywhere. All legal systems, not just the American one, are clear on that.

With that one exception, our system wisely gives much broader protection to free expression than most other systems do. In most of Europe there are more restrictive laws about "hate speech", which predictably lead to prosecutions of people for expressing opinions the ruling paty doesn't want to hear (critics of Islam get prosecuted, but Muslim preachers who openly call for the murder of Jews and homosexuals are never prosecuted).

The proper response to evil speech is to reply and refute, not to forbid.

Yes, the words of a Glenn Beck or an Anjem Choudary might someday lead a person to commit a terrorist act who, arguably, would not otherwise have done so. We can point this out. We cannot shut them up.

Allowing hateful and extremist speech has bad consequences. Forbidding it would have worse consequences.

Update (15 November 2009): The comment thread at the original post, while interesting and well worth reading, has veered off into Nazi-Germany analogies. (As an aside, it seems that last year's election repealed Godwin's law? Every time Obama does anything whatsoever, the teabaggers and other far-right nutters compare him to Hitler; and this seems to have thrown open the floodgates so that now everybody compares everyone and everything to Hitler.) Much as I despise Beck and his ilk, calling them Nazis is simply un-serious. But without conflating evils of radically-different magnitude, there is a point worth making here.

In Germany of the 1930s, people feared that Communism was so dangerous that they had to go along with restrictions on various freedoms to defeat the threat, as the Nazi party proposed. Many intelligent and well-meaning people agreed with such restrictions. And in fact Communism was a real danger. But submitting to the restrictions was still a bad idea.

Under President Bush, the claim was that Islamic terrorism was so dangerous that we had to accept some restrictions on traditional American freedoms to defeat the threat. Many intelligent and well-meaning people agreed with such restrictions. And in fact Islamic terrorism is a real danger. But submitting to the restrictions was still a bad idea.

Now it seems that many intelligent and well-meaning people are saying that right-wing extremism in the US is such a major threat that we need to agree to restrictions on our traditional freedom of speech in order to defeat it. And right-wing extremism is a real danger. But submitting to the restrictions would still be a bad idea.

My point is, the danger is not necessarily where people in each case think it is, or at least not only where they think it is.

In any case, while the extreme right in this country presents a plausible terrorist threat, it doesn't present a plausible threat of a fascist take-over. Let the Becks and Limbaughs yammer, and fight them with rebuttals, denunciations, boycotts, and the other tools of a free society. If they are silenced by some unconstitutional government action, millions will conclude (perhaps rightly) that they have a point.


Blogger TomCat said...

I agree with you in principle, but when it comes to a Glen Beck, the issue is not actually freedom of speech. It's freedom of the press. That right is vested in the owner of the press, and unfortunately, in this case, that's Rupert Murdoch. It is altogether proper for progressives to encourage boycotting his advertisers to make it as expensive as possible for Murdoch to give him a platform to spew his hatred. I fully agree with your solutions as well.

14 November, 2009 11:36  
Blogger Jerry Critter said...

The first amendment prohibits the CONGRESS from restricting free speech. It does not restrict what one person can say to another. There are other laws that cover that.

Here is the first amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

14 November, 2009 13:02  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

I liked this posting and link.But I am amazed at all the opinion's from everywhere's on this subject. I frankly hear alot I dont like...alway's have guy ...BUT ...when I say I "believe" in free speech...I actually do...it bring's it's own natural consequences if that make's any sense.I mean...say what you will, but understand consequence's from those who you speak against or for what cause.I am TOTALLY opposed to all this PC crap and what these free speech war's are amounting to.I dont need a government to protect me so my feeling's are not hurt in other word's..I'll defend myself...but that's just me.If I see some fundi radical muslim's for instance rallying on the street to kill American's,and maybe burning a flag, I'm not going to run to the government and ask them to call it off or outlaw it...I'll go up on a building or parking garage...crap and urinate in a bucket,throw some egg's or whatever in there...and drop it on their head's.


14 November, 2009 15:45  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

TC -- I have nothing against boycotts as an expression of opposition to what someone is saying, under any circumstances. Boycotts are not censorship. I have no right to silence Beck (or Murdoch), but I have no obligation to purchase goods from advertisers who support their media outlets.

JC -- Not sure I get your point. The First Amendment prohibits Congress from restricting free speech -- which does indeed mean that Congress cannot "restrict what one person can say to another", nor can it restrict other forms of free speech such as what newspapers, corporations, etc. can say.

Technically the wording prohibits only Congress from restricting free speech, but this has always been interpreted to mean that other government entities such as states or counties cannot restrict free speech either.

RC -- Indeed, free expression must include the freedom to offend, otherwise it means nothing. Speech that doesn't offend anybody needs no protection since nobody would want to ban it.

The flag is the symbol, the Constitution is the substance. I find flag-burning very offensive, but a law to ban it would be a flagrant attack on the Constitution -- it would be damaging the substance to protect the symbol.

14 November, 2009 16:32  
Blogger Jerry Critter said...

Infidel, I think we are in agreement here. My point was that when someone says that I am limiting their first amendment rights by trying to limit what they say, it is not their first amendment rights I am limiting. The first amendment only applies to congress limiting, or actually not limiting, someone free speech.

14 November, 2009 17:32  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

JC -- If you mean that actions as a private citizen against offensive speech, such as boycotts, rebuttals, denunciations, etc., are not violations of the targeted speaker's First Amendment rights, then I agree with you. I wouldn't call such actions limitations on freedom of speech, though.

Using actual force (such as violence or threats of violence) to try to stop expression one objects to is limitation of freedom of speech, even if it's individuals rather than the government doing it. Such actions don't violate the Constitition, I suppose, but they have no place in a free society.

15 November, 2009 01:42  
Blogger Jerry Critter said...


15 November, 2009 07:20  
Blogger (O)CT(O)PUS said...

Jim David Adkisson carried a shotgun and 76 rounds of ammunition into the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church in Knoxville. Within minutes, he killed a 61-year old retired schoolteacher and a 60-year old foster father who tried to shield others from the attack.

Later, detectives searched Adkisson’s house where they found (besides more guns and ammunition): Copies of Liberalism is a mental disorder by Michael Savage, Let freedom ring by Sean Hannity, and The O’Reilly Factor by Bill O’Reilly.

In Adkisson’s car was a 4-page manifesto that said in part:

Liberals are like termites. Millions of them. Each little bite contributes to the downfall of this great nation. The only way we can rid ourselves of this evil is Kill them in the streets. Kill them where they gather.”

Living in a free society presents us with this conundrum: Do we restrict free speech when we feel threatened and voluntarily place restrictions on our freedoms, or do we accept the risk that free speech will incite disturbed persons who might engage in criminal acts against us?

While these extremes seem mutually contradictory, our system of government mirrors the conundrums of life, and maybe it takes a connoisseur’s appreciation of paradox to accept the benefits and risks of freedom … as uncomfortable as it may feel at times.

15 November, 2009 22:26  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

(O)ct(o)pus -- Your comment pretty much exemplifies the kind of question I wrote this posting to answer. I'm certain that, if we were to "restrict free speech when we feel threatened and voluntarily place restrictions on our freedoms", it would not make terrorist acts like Adkisson's less common. It might even make them more common.

15 November, 2009 22:50  

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