What Free Speech Means to Me

Today is International Blasphemy Day – an initiative headed by the Center for Inquiry to raise awareness of limitations placed on free expression in the context of insulted religious sensibilities throughout the world. Of course, this is something I support; as someone who is non-religious, I don’t wish the act of holding the beliefs I do to become a punishable crime. I also think blasphemy laws are silly in general terms. There is not one set of rules for blasphemy – the very state of being Christian is, in some cases, blasphemous to certain Muslims, for example. Suppressing dissenting opinions is a clear indication that you aren’t able to defend your own views very well, and as my friend put it, “if God is so puny that he needs us mere humans to police each other against profaning His Sacred Name, then we are the fools for being duped into worshiping him in the first place.”

The Prophet Muhammed

The Prophet Muhammed

But the concept of free speech goes much, much deeper than defending and protecting my own opinions. Free speech, or more accurately free expression, is the guarantee that you will not be forcibly restrained or punished for holding, publicly expressing, or communicating any concept, statement, or belief whatsoever. Sure, that includes beliefs which are blasphemous to any religion, and expressions of those beliefs, such as the cartoon shown to the left which incited murderous riots in Denmark and brought the debate over their blasphemy law into public focus. But, it also includes ideas and opinions which I, and any reasonable human being, would find absolutely loathsome.

The right to express the belief that those who insult Islam should be put to death must be protected. So too must the beliefs that women should be subservient to men, that 9/11 was a Jewish conspiracy, that childhood vaccinations cause autism, that the world would be better if homosexuals were exterminated, and that speech should be regulated and censored by governments. It is possible to oppose such beliefs in the furthest extreme while supporting with equal strength the right to hold and express them. More so, I think it is vital for the success of a free democracy to do just that.

I have heard people say that they support free speech in regards to controversial topics, where there are reasonable opinions on either side, but that when speech crosses over into the patently and demonstrably false, or when it becomes hateful, that it is then reasonable to put a stop to it. I couldn’t disagree with this more – I truly see the issue as an all or nothing case. My disagreement mainly comes from an emotional place, in that it simply feels wrong to me to restrict any sort of idea no matter what. I think what underpins those feelings is the belief that no one should have the kind of power that allows mere thoughts and words to be restricted and punished, period. I’m wearing my Thomas Paine shirt today, which contains the following quotation:

“He that would make his own liberties secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”

The quotation could be interpreted as a pragmatic argument – if we allow the ruling party to restrict ideas which are distasteful to me, they might then restrict my ideas which are distasteful to them. The response to that would be to say that as long as you only restrict obviously false and hateful ideas, the precedent doesn’t apply to my ideas. That may be true, but I think Paine meant something deeper. I think he was saying that once you grant any measure of power to the majority of a population over thoughts and expressions, and more importantly the ability to define which thoughts and expressions are allowable, you have opened a way to unchecked tyranny. Not to say that tyranny is an immediate or even inevitable outcome, but without solid and uncompromising protections for even the smallest and craziest of minorities, it becomes extremely difficult to reverse the process of slowly turning each minority opinion, one by one, into a crime. At what point will each of us find ourselves in an undesirable minority?

Oh boy, OK, this post has gone in a weird libertarian direction that I didn’t intend. I was having trouble even finishing the above thought, which I will take as a sign to simply move on. The point I wanted to get across is that as we celebrate blasphemy, which most of my readers will agree is a victimless ‘crime’, we should keep in mind that the principles we’re supporting go much further than ourselves, and that the freedom to openly express offensive ideas is not one bit less important when we’re the ones who happen to be offended.

And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.


~ by jbrydle on September 30, 2009.

7 Responses to “What Free Speech Means to Me”

  1. What about libel or incitement? I agree with you that offense is not an appropriate basis for censorship, but I disagree with patent falsehood.

  2. I also question Paine’s stance on not having a precedent. The only way you can not have a precedent is if you create some magical place without history, evolution, or human predispositions. We aren’t so lucky. History is full of precedents and our very human nature tends to push us to certain attitudes beliefs. Thus, while I would very much like to agree with Paine, I think he is advocating an untenable position.

    Besides, everything gets fuzzy at the margins. Do I have the right to stand outside your house every day and yell that you’re a godless heathen and verbally abuse you? Its just words, right?

    How about using my massive media empire to destroy your reputation (as Mozglubov suggested) by printing stories about your sexual deviancy and bad habits and the like? Still just free speech.

    As usual, I tend to agree with you in principle, but disagree with the oversimplification. Life’s far too complicated to oversimplify.

  3. Yeah, I intentionally left out libel. I’m not quite sure where I draw the line on that one. There seems to be a compelling case for the regulation of expressing patently false claims that directly harm someone else. I think the direct harm is a necessary component though – I don’t support restrictions on beliefs that are merely false, even provably so. I think in any libel case, the burden of proof is on the accuser to show that the statements are false, that the accused knew, or had every reason to believe the statements were false when he/she made them, and that the statements caused direct financial harm to the accuser. I’m happy that the liberal democrat party in England recently agreed to reform their libel laws, which up until now have put the burden of proof on the accused to defend their allegedly libelous statements. It is largely because of the British Chiropractic Association’s suit against Simon Singh that this change is taking place, which greatly pleases me.

    I have a hard time imagining that incitement should be considered a crime. I think that if the people who end up committing an act of violence were of sound mind at the time of the commission, then it really doesn’t matter who suggested, or even demanded they do it. I understand there are psychological reasons to believe that in some circumstances, even those of sound mind are largely powerless to will themselves out of certain actions, but our entire legal structure depends on the idea of personal autonomy and free will. Perhaps in light of modern psychological research that structure needs to be re-examined, but that’s beyond the scope of my little blog.

    Peter, Paine was about as close to being a founding father as he could get without having his name on the declaration of independence. In so far as a society can exist without legal precedents, I think he was speaking accurately. Also consider that that is a quotation taken out of its original context, and could have been a rhetorical exaggeration, I really don’t know. Taken as it is, and giving Paine the benefit of the doubt, I think your criticism is a little pedantic.

    You also bring up the idea of time, place, and manner restrictions on speech. That’s a fine point, and it’s why I specifically mentioned a distinction between the concepts of “speech” and “expression”. Screaming into someone’s ear so loudly that you cause physical damage, or frequently disturbing someone’s privacy in the interest of a literal interpretation of the word “speech” goes far beyond the intention of the principle I’m discussing. I tried to choose my words carefully to avoid that confusion as much as possible. I’m talking about a reasonable expression and communication of an idea, not the semantic abuse of a constitutional amendment.

  4. Alright, lets shy away from the controversy of a group of loonies camped out on your sidewalk every day, not actually doing physical damage but merely hurling hurtful and incendiary comments your way. But, I still say that you can’t only have a black and white dichotomy between physical harm and non-physical harm.

    As for Paine (and the US founding fathers in general), they certainly did not create a nation out of nothing. The precedents of the entire British democratic, legal, and philosophical tradition existed and were relied upon to provide a rough guide for the good v. bad behaviour in society in general (esp. outside what was unsaid in the Declaration/Constitution). Furthermore, religious, social, and cultural influences were not somehow reset with the Declaration of Independence. Those documents were crafted to apply to a particular time and place and peoples as best they can. Sadly, its not a very portable document. That is, you can’t just take them and toss them into some other place on Earth and expect the same results. Too much else gets in the way. There’s no such thing as a blank slate 😛

  5. Ok ok, fine. If you take one definition of the word precedent then yes, it is utterly meaningless after day two of human existence. Surely, the fact that we’re able to use the word points to it having useful definitions though. It can be said of certain legal cases that no precedent exists, or that it is a precedent-setting case, and no one gets up in arms about being suffused in an ocean of culture and history that permeates every aspect of human experience. I also don’t want to get hung up on the founding of America or the first amendment specifically. The principle of free expression exists outside of the United States… perhaps not quite to the same extent or quite as well articulated, but on the grand spectrum of global societies, we’ve certainly got freedom in spades here in Canada.

  6. Their has never been a communist society, and if a communist society existed, the state apparatus would have withered away and you would have an administration of things not an administration of people. Obviously the conditions for the state to exercise power is present under the system of socialism and under the system of capitalism.
    The economy that exists inside a capitalist and socialist society can be characterized as being that of a “Market Economy!” and that of a “Planned Economy!”
    A “Market Economy” is designed to enrich the competing capitalists and to give prestige and power to the most successful for market share!
    It is a “Top Down” system where the most successful competitors rule the market place and attempt to buy off all opposition.
    Under a “Socialist Planned Economy” their exists not competition for market share, but “Cooperation” for the sharing of what is produced, with the entire society. Much of what was attempted failed in the former Soviet Union because the conditions and resources that would make this possible were not yet present in a powerful capitalist dominated world.
    Under the old “Soviet Union” and under the capitalism of the USA and elsewhere, you have and had similar government rule that was for the most part pragmatic in their approach to governing their respective societies.
    The amount of constitutional free speech and association and guaranteed rights under every and any government apparatus is contingent on the existing internal conditions. Every nations distinct history, culture, religion and psychological nature has everything to do with how the people under the stress of conflict and necessary change will conduct themselves.
    To say that a socialist or a capitalist government will act in a different way to insure the preservation or extension of their particular economic system, is false. The history of conflict between opposing classes and nations have been for the most part, PRAGMATIC!
    “Fascism,” is the dictatorship of the CAPITALIST CLASS!” “Socialism” is the dictatorship of the WORKING CLASS! ….“Democracy is possible under both Capitalism and Socialism when the conditions of revolution, rebellion, martial law, insurrection, and counter revolution, are not threatening the status quo of Capitalism and Socialism

  7. What on earth are you talking about? Apart from bringing up issues utterly apart from anything previously discussed, you’ve got your economics exactly backwards. A market economy is not a top-down system, and it is not designed by anyone. That’s the entire point of Adam Smith’s economic theory. A market economy is what naturally emerges when you strip away the constraints on free association and free trade. For better or for worse, and I’m not making any judgments to that effect here, it is anything but top down. To have anything other than a pure market economy (which we do – just as true communism is not practiced in any country, neither is pure free market economics) you need to place constraints on people. Perhaps such a system will ‘work better’ than an unconstrained system, and I think there’s good evidence that it will. Is your only goal to form a system that ‘works’? How do you define ‘working well’ and why is your definition preferable to anyone else’s? Regardless, what does any of this have to do with the ability to freely express unpopular opinions without threat of restraint or violent retribution?

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