Talking Realistically About Free Speech

From Atheist Republic a piece by Casper Rigsby which seeks to tease out the limitations on free speech.

Free Speech
Photo Source: EN-Globe

Now, I want to start out by making some things clear. First of all, I am indeed an advocate of free speech. Of course there is a caveat to that advocacy which is that I advocate for free speech within reason; but I'll go into that in greater detail shortly. Secondly, I am not, nor have I ever been, an advocate of violence outside of self-defense. So I'm not in the “punch a Nazi” crowd. That being said, I'd be lying if I said I didn't laugh my ass off when I saw that video of Richard Spencer getting punched because I can acknowledge that something is unethical and also admit that regardless of that acknowledgement there's still a part of me that finds it amusing that he doesn't know that advocating for terrible shit like ethnic cleansing might just cause people to punch you in the face. Idealism is wonderful and all, but reality often trumps idealism and we are subject to the reality we live in rather than the ideal world we’d like to live in.

So as someone who is in fact an advocate of free speech and does not advocate for violence, it may seem odd that I've been arguing with others over free speech. What you must understand however is that I'm not a free speech absolutist. I do not advocate for protecting all speech under the umbrella of free speech. The reason I take this position is this weird thing called nuance and the understanding that taking an absolutist position on a philosophical ideal like free speech which cannot even be defined as a universal truth or axiom is at best intellectually lazy and at worst is just dangerously ignorant. The best argument for free speech absolutism is nothing more than a slippery slope fallacy that posits the notion that if we don't protect all speech as free speech then we put all speech in jeopardy. It really is a rather terrible and fallacious argument and thus far it's still the best one I've seen put forward.

I'll get into why it's a terrible and fallacious argument shortly, but first let me discuss my position in further detail.

Now, my position is this:

The linchpin which holds society together is the rule of law. You can posit that freedom is actually the linchpin and that freedom of speech is of utmost importance in maintaining freedoms, but in reality without the rule of law there is anarchy and chaos. Absolute freedom will evince to absolute chaos and ultimately to absolute despotism just as surely as fascism will. If we value society we must acquiesce to the fact that society can only thrive in an environment where there is order. Such order, in a strong society, should evince first and foremost to act as a guardian of the safety and well-being of it's citizens.

Understanding this leads me to the position that, while freedom of speech has true intrinsic value for a free society, speech which incites violence, be it immediate or long-term, puts many citizens in danger and threatens their safety and well-being. I believe that our laws in the United States do not do enough to protect it's citizens from violence which has been incited by the speech of others. I believe it is possible, although I dare say not under the current administration, to reevaluate current laws to do more to protect our citizens from the violence which is often incited by the speech of others. This is not a call for outright censorship, but rather for making it clear that speech which incites violence is not welcome and will not be tolerated in a society which acknowledges that the safety and well-being of its citizenry is of paramount importance.

I said I'd get back to why the slippery slope argument of free speech absolutists is terrible and fallacious, so let me touch on that now.

One of the best gauges of freedom of speech and expression is the Press Freedom Index. This index is compiled by Reporters Without Borders who are an independent NGO who consults for the UN Human Rights Council, UNESCO, and OIF. The index ranks 180 countries in terms of their freedom of speech and expression, especially how this relates to the rights of the free press. Their determination of the scores and rankings offered in this index are based on a multitude of factors and are updated annually.

Now, one would assume that on an index that specifically measures freedom of speech and expression, countries with any real sort of censorship should rank lower than those who supposedly value a lack of censorship. As it turns out however, this isn’t actually the case. The country of Germany, who has laws outlawing the public display of Nazi paraphernalia and Nazi speech in the public arena, is ranked 16th out of 180 other countries. The United States however, a nation where people ignorantly think they are the most free nation on earth, ranks 43rd! The real cause of this rather low ranking for the US comes from laws regarding libel and slander and the court system siding with even the most frivolous of lawsuits concerning libel or slander, as well as our politicians constantly lying to the public and hiding facts from the citizenry. So it becomes apparent when we look at this index that countries most certainly can have a reasonable level of censorship of ideas which have been proven to endanger the populous while also maintaining the right to free speech. It’s this crazy notion of free speech within reason, and it seems to be a concept that free speech absolutists just don’t understand.

If our government can reason that someone’s reputation and livelihood should be protected from the speech of others, it makes no reasonable sense to say that we cannot reasonably protect the safety and well-being of the citizenry against speech which either directly or indirectly incites violence against cross-sections of the populous. Germany’s laws regarding Nazi propaganda and speech are reasonable protection for the citizenry against an idea that literally led to the murder of over 9 million people. And the other thing there is that those laws do not restrict citizens from holding an idea or even exploring that idea in their private lives. You can read Mein Kampf in your own home and hold its ideas to be true without the worry that the government will intrude into your private life and penalize you for it. However, if you bring those ideas into the public arena you are endangering others by advocating ideas which can and have been shown to incite others to violent action. There really isn’t anything unreasonable about this.

It should be seen as a tragedy of justice that as Robert Dear stands trial for murdering three people at a planned parenthood clinic, the preachers and talking heads which said encouraged such action are sitting comfortable and free to continue encouraging such actions. Yet, because they didn't speak to Dear specifically and plan this shooting with him many deem them unaccountable and inculpable in this horrific tragedy. Many of these preachers and talking heads have specifically called for violence against abortion doctors or their patients.

But of course, we have to let people call for violence and protect it as “free speech” just so long as they aren't standing in a crowd and yelling “We have to kill these people now!” and someone does that right then. I'm sorry, but from an ethical standpoint it seems absolutely unethical to put other people's lives in danger so that we can say we stand on “principle” for the freedom of others to incite violence.

Now, the latest arguments over this issue, especially amongst many in the atheist community, arose because of that Richard Spencer punch in the face. They started, not because Spencer got punched, but because a vocal group of atheists became outraged over the incident and decided to claim this as a free speech issue. Spencer wasn't censored by our government. He wasn't censored by his internet domain provider shutting down his website. He wasn't censored at all by any meaningful definition of what censorship is. He was assaulted by a vigilante antifa member who thinks that reactionary violence was an apt reaction to Spencer's rhetoric. This act was most certainly unethical, as all unprovoked assault is; but it was not by any stretch of the imagination an act of censorship that violated his free speech rights as defined by the laws of this nation. Should his assailant be caught, he should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law for assault.

The problem and argument arises when people choose to make issues which aren't free speech issues, “free speech” issues. The problem also arises when we look at who these free speech absolutists choose to champion. Richard Spencer advocates for what he terms as “peaceful ethnic cleansing” for fuck's sake. He has edited and posted at least one piece on one of his websites advocating for the genocide of black people in this nation. Even if I were to accept that he should have the “right” to advocate for and try to recruit people to join his cause of ethnic cleansing and genocide, I would still not feel any ethical obligation to stand up for him or speak out for his supposed “right” to do this. The ACLU may be obligated to do so by their own guidelines and charter, but as a private citizen I most certainly have no obligation to do so. I have no obligation to champion those, or the speech of those, whom I am ethically and ideologically opposed to. There is nothing “wrong” with me stating that Spencer’s ideology is so unethical and dangerous to our society that I refuse to stand up and champion his “right” to spread those ideas throughout the populous and try to recruit others to join his cause. I would no more champion his “right” to do this than I would champion the “right” of an Islamic extremist to advocate for Muslims to commit acts of terrorism against the US in the public arena, including college campuses or even street corners.

So, my position stands as this:

There is a line which must be drawn which acknowledges the reality that speech can cross from being the free expression of ideas into being a call to action. We have a responsibility to our citizenry to preserve the safety and well-being our citizens against speech which crosses that line and enters into the realm of incitement if we value our society. It is not unreasonable to closely examine our laws and see if strengthening them is in the best interest of our society for the safety and security of our citizens. No slippery slope fallacy will negate this reasonable idea and the position that public safety should trump the “rights” of others to use speech to incite violence either directly or indirectly.

If you disagree with me and would like to debate me on the issue I am always open to reasonable formal debate. If you’d like to challenge me to such a debate please contact me:

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