Monday, September 10, 2007

freedom of speech and responsibility

I've been thinking a lot lately about freedom of speech. It is something that everyone in Canada and America values, or at least claims to value.

Ask a Canadian if they'd be willing to give up their freedom of speech, and they will likely tell you that in Canada we believe in free speech. Ask an American to support a candidate for president who's running on a promise to repeal the first amendment and they'll likely laugh in your face.

We are two of the freest countries in the world, and for all of our flirtations with socialism, free speech is something that average Canadians and Americans continue to have at least a strong superficial belief in.

So why is it that so often we hear the words "I believe in free speech, but..."

But what?

Well the one I hear most often is, "We believe in free speech, but freedom of speech is not freedom from responsibility."

OK, so we need to make sure that people are responsible for their actions.
Let's examine this argument against free speech. (And it is an argument against free speech - unless you have complete freedom of speech, you do not have free speech. Is it freedom of religion if you can be any religion but pagan/Catholic/Jewish? Same deal.)

"You can't yell fire in a crowded theater!" Someone will almost always say. Well, actually, you can - but we hold you accountable for it. The offender must compensate the theater owner for lost business and property damage, the injured for their injuries, and must be held accountable by all the folks inconvenienced and anyone else who thinks that they're a jerk for messing with everyone's night out. Freedom of speech, coupled with the protection of property, will force responsibility on the offender.

Hate speech? Allow it. If someone is an outright racist or bigot, I'd rather know so that I can deny them business, avoid them, give them dirty looks, and so that their community can follow suit. Let's unite behind whoever is under attack by the bigots and show them support in a way few other events can. Everyone loves to hate a villain. Again - freedom of speech forces responsibility on the offender.

"But what about death threats?" someone else will ask. Well, to quote Ian from Ianism (which appears to be down - what a shame), if someone is going to try to kill me, the last thing I want to do is take away their ability to warn me.

And what about free speech that doesn't physically hurt or coerce any person or property? What about the overtly moral attempting to "protect" us from what they find offensive and therefore "damaging" to, well, who knows who. Probably the children.

Who decides what's offensive? Those busybodies trying to ban it? Well, let's say said busybodies are very religious. Should they be able to stop me from saying "There is no God?" Let's hope not.
But let's ignore that very important point for the sake of getting to the "responsibility" argument. Regardless of who's deciding what's OK for me to see or hear, what does censorship of this type accomplish?

Well, people aren't offended by, for example, turning on their TV at 5:00 in the afternoon and hearing a curse word or seeing a partially naked woman. But what does this do? It takes away the responsibility of those watching the TV to mind what channels they go to, the responsibility of parents to watch their children or teach them about the things they hope they will avoid.

In the case of offended sensibilities, freedom is curtailed specifically to avoid responsibility. Is mass irresponsibility really something that we want to be encouraging? According to the people lobbying for censorship, that's exactly the kind of mindset we should all be trying to avoid.

(cross-posted to Bureaucrash and The Natural Society)


PGP said...

Exactly .... every last person you have or will ever hear use that "BUT" in the context of free speech debate is pushing their own set of rules on you. It's the language of the tongue clucking finger wagging nurse nanny .....

I believe in freedom of speech AND I believe that being offended by what someone says in no way justifies any form of legal action.

Outside of deliberate slander and libel,which are laws that do limit free speech, there is NO justification for creating laws that criminalize opinion.

Janet said...

I actually don't see slander/libel laws as limits on free speech unless they're used frivilously (when no real damage has been done to the target of the slander.)
It's just another way to hold you responsible for your actions. If you're willing to compensate who you're lying about, you're free to lie the night away (and your credibility with it).

NB taxpayer said...

Good post. An let's be honest, ppl like Micheal Richards just remind us that there is a festering intolerance which exist within every society.

Attempts to silence this hatred and tension, through censorship, will only make it worse. Speech police may think it has gone away, but in reality, it is out there unexposed and strengthening itself as time goes by.

It's better to keep this stuff out in the open via free speech so we can address it for what it is --- stupidity.

Raphael Alexander said...

I agree with the principle of free speech. But. In the United Kingdom, imams are openly allowed to pronounce hate speech against the government and against western civilization. Is there a kind of limitation that should be imposed on the dissemination of hatred?

Janet said...

raphael alexander-
I think that the proper response to hate speech of any kind is to voice our support for things like equality and freedom, not to sit idly by or call for it to be limited or banned.

If Western civilization is worth defending, why don't we defend it? Don't run away from the responsibility of protecting our free society - especially by giving up part of what makes it worth defending.