Friday, October 27, 2006

Free Speech

[By Alex Gregory]

Ok, I should probably step off of Richard's blog now, so I'd like to thank him for letting me post here for last couple of weeks. For this last post, I just wanted to make a brief point on free speech.

I often hear various (not all!) left-wing people attack free speech these days. They often make the point that speech is an act like any other, and, like any other act, can have negative consequences. Shouting "fire!" in a crowded theatre seems unacceptable given the injury, or even death, that it might lead to. Likewise, they say, racist, sexist, or other bigoted speech should similarly be supressed. (witness that cartoon controversy).

But I suspect that these same people would be the first to object to the same reasoning when used in the other direction. Over at (the sometimes amusing, sometimes silly) minimum security, Stephanie has a cartoon suggesting that it's terrible that the American government is charging someone because they've made statements that support Al-Qaeda.

Perhaps she's right, I know nothing of the details of this case. But anyone arguing against free speech must really take care to remember that those choosing which speech to supress won't do it perfectly. The choice isn't between free speech and perfectly regulated speech. It's between free speech and imperfectly regulated speech. The latter, especially when those in power are the one's doing the supressing, looks far worse to me.

It might be true that some speech should be regulated in an ideal world, but nonetheless, I don't believe we should trust anyone, including ourselves, with the task of choosing which speech to prohibit.


  1. Alex,

    Your main point here is one that I attempted to make in the comment thread to a recent post of mine on free speech, and similar to one that I attempted to make in an older post about the cartoon controversy that you mention. I think, however, that the issue may be even more serious than you imply; specifically I think that those on the left who seek to regulate speech that they consider racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive exhibit authoritarian tendencies that would be just as dangerous as the authoritarian tendencies (or more than tendencies) that are clearly observable on the right these days, if only the leftists who exhibit them had any real influence. Here's an excerpt of my argument for this claim, which I made in criticism of the protest of a speech by Minutemen founder Jim Gilchrist by Columbia University activists:

    ...the activists violated a principle that they claim to stand for (i.e. free speech), and were in fact attempting to fight racism with authoritarianism, which is of course also something that they claim to oppose, I think the conclusion follows.

    What I mean by the claim that their actions were authoritarian, and therefore violated their own principles, is this: These activists strongly and rightly oppose the Bush Administration’s recently passed law on so-called “enemy combatants” that allows the Executive to designate anyone an enemy combatant and hold him indefinitely without charges. The reason they oppose this is that the Executive has absolute authority over who gets classified as an enemy combatant; no one can challenge his designations. “No Habeas Corpus for terrorists” might, at first glance, sound reasonable enough, but when we ask who counts as a terrorist, the answer from the executive is “whoever I say is a terrorist.” So unless we’re willing to place absolute faith in both the executive’s judgement and integrity, we’d be crazy to support the policy “no Habeas Corpus for terrorists.” Who’s to stop him from deciding that we’re terrorists? What the activists have essentially said (and what an activist at my home institution, UC-Berkeley, actually said to me during a discussion of these issues) by way of defending their actions is “no free speech for fascists.” But of course the same problem arises. They’ve designated themselves as the arbiters of who counts as a fascist and who doesn’t, and asked us to trust them to make the right decisions. And that’s authoritarianism.

    Given that what they’ve advocated, if only indirectly in their words, but explicitly in their actions, is authoritarianism, it doesn’t matter that they’re basically right about Gilchrist and the Minutemen. Just as the executive will sometimes use their absolute power to deny Habeas Corpus to actual terrorists, sometimes the activists will use their self-granted power to silence actual fascists. But surely we can’t trust them to get it right all the time, even if their intentions are far superior to those of the Administration.

  2. Thanks for your posts, Alex!

    Could you clarify the intended scope of your present argument? That is, do you oppose criminal sanctions for any speech whatsoever, including death threats, blackmail, perjury, libel, revealing classified information, giving instructions to a criminal accomplice, etc.? That would seem a mistake on the order of refusing to outlaw any actions because the government cannot be trusted to regulate the right things.

    But I do agree with the main jist of your argument. We shouldn't grant government (or anyone else) too much discretion in deciding what to suppress. But perhaps we can draw up a principled list of speech-act types that need regulating. Freedom ought to be the default in contentious cases, but I think the principles of procedural liberalism and civic respect can help us to pin down some types that every reasonable political agent should agree about.

  3. I think the basic prudent principle is that we pass the law that breaches the principle of free speach (or other core principle) by the very least amount required to solve the problem. And the principle one applies should be one one would be willing to apply to yourself (and that this "application to yourself" is considered to be fairly equivilent by an unbiased observer).

    The one big worry then is the percieved magnitude and difficulty of the problem (ie marxists might see a huge and very difficult, but surmountable, problem in capitalism).

  4. It would appear to me that while you attack your straw dog with vigor, you seem to avoid your larger and rather more vigorous pet.

    Lets first take a look at your straw dog. While making a record of Senator Allen's speeches so that he could not say one thing to one audience, and the opposite to another, without being called out, a native Virginian found himself the object of a sort of hate speech found only in the most extreme racist circles.

    What did happen to the Senator- His bigotry became an issue in the campaign. People who remembered past bigotry spoke up. Folk who knew, pointed out he was bigoted against himself. What was a cakewalk put his campaign on a rock.

    What did not happen to the Senator-
    No police arrested him, he was not beaten (physically), nobody tortured him.

    And now the real dog.
    A good friend found that a friend found that a bank had manipulated his account, holding back a deposit, paying out a big check, charging $50 fees on each of a lot of little checks, blowing out the deposit and running the account into a negative $500. All of this legal by a law passed recently to legalize a lot of white collar crimes.

    Not surprisingly my friend was outraged and cussed out the bank president very loudly in front of all the other customers.

    For this my friend was beaten up by police (at his house)then arrested, thrown in jail for a year and a half, and tortured (by the Geneva conventions rules anyway), all for wounding the ego of a banker.

    This is the only case I know of personally, but he saw more, and it is well known that even cracking a joke in an airport can get you the same.

    This is the real threat to free speech, brought on by the Gang Of Predators, and not any PC lefty straw dog.

  5. Not that I dont think your friend was treated unfairly (I believe we would be protected from that situation in NZ) and that the GOP are 'doing you wrong"... but I think you mean cracking a joke like "I have a bomb in my pants".

    You may be asking a lot of people to consider that protected free speach... Or for them to not do a very through search of your pants and rectum, call off a flight or two and hold you responsible for the whole affair.


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