Western laws constricting free speech

There is one aspect of the US that I particularly admire and that is their protection of free speech due to 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.

Unfortunately that protection is not always available to people in other Western countries, with the UK having a number of high-profile incidents where citizens have been arrested for things that they’ve said.

I find this extremely worrying because to me free speech is the most important right we have. If you deny free speech then you effectively can cut off debate for any other right. While many of the cases that go to courts are not making great philosophical arguments, for example posting pictures of a burning poppy or wearing a shirt featuring Osama Bin Laden, they do say something about our society.

Sure, burning a poppy could offend people or disrespect the memories of those that died but criminalising that behaviour does something worse. It makes it a crime to have a different view. We cannot move forward as a society when certain ideas are seen as off limits and cannot even be discussed. Even if we never change our mind, it couldn’t hurt society to let someone differ and for us to remind ourself why we hold a position. Not only do we prevent people from expressing a different idea because it might offend someone but we can also ignore what the supposedly offended think as shown by veteran Robert Johnson commenting on a similar incident:

More importantly, if Lindsey Stone wants to rip on the Tomb of the Unknowns, me, my service, or the hundreds of mutilated troops I served with at Walter Reed Medical Center, she should be able to do so without fear of retribution. Freedom like that is what we fought for, and respecting other opinions is part of what the military tried to teach all of us who served.

We don’t need a society where everyone thinks the same thoughts and where there are institutions and individuals held in too high esteem to be questioned. People and organisations are all fallible and that needs to be recognised. Uncritical veneration of veterans or historical institutions can result in us failing to address problems before they arise and perhaps, in the case of excessively honouring the military, may lead to a repeat of the history that we maintain we never want to see again.

That’s not to say that there aren’t times when free speech can be restricted but those are very limited. I’ve said before that those times would be when something is factually wrong or incites harm against someone else. There are also case-specific incidents. While it’s fine to hold the opinion that all soldiers are murderers it is not fine to keep phoning a soldier and telling him that or following him across the internet. That is no longer free speech but has crossed over to harassment and stalking. There is a time and a place where you should be free to say what you want but that does not include relentlessly targeting individuals.

That also doesn’t mean that any time someone says something insulting or offensive it should be a crime. Speech can be distressing, contemptible but still worth protecting. The American courts ruled last year that Westboro Baptist Church’s protest near a soldier’s funeral was protected speech. In this case it is certainly distressing for the family but they were on public property and peaceful. They did not interfere with the funeral and the distress was caused solely because of their message, not because they targeted any particular individual. We can see it was inappropriate behaviour but we must not punish people because someone else finds that person’s position offensive.

In South Africa we have the same problems and I highly recommend reading Jacques Rousseau’s piece here about free speech and identity using South African examples. Needless to say I think we really do need to make a clear distinction between individuals and the groups with which they may be associated, at least when they are not speaking as the representative of one of those groups. It’s best if the company and employee’s views are aligned but if their views do not impact on their work then we shouldn’t try to force all employees to share a single opinion.

While in the above South African examples the risk was separated from the law that isn’t always the case. The South African Communist Party seems to think there should be a law to protect the dignity of the president. On the face of it sounds good, everyone deserves respect and protection from baseless claims, but we’ve seen how this works; it’s really a way to suppress criticism and satire. Even if it were made with the best intentions it would still wouldn’t be constitutional and would take the law in the wrong direction. The president is a public figure and so really needs to be more available to criticism and satire, some of which may also be insulting. I say he should be more available as a target for criticism and satire beyond that of the average person because, unlike Mrs Smith down the street, matters relating to his views, lifestyle and beliefs have an influence on the policies of the country. Furthermore it’s possible for any person to lose another person’s respect. While by default everyone should be entitled to a basic level of respect as a fellow human being that only goes so far. After that one must earn, or run the risk of losing, respect it by their actions.

Every one of us and all of our beliefs and opinions are fallible and may at some point be proved wrong. With no objective way of judging our subjective beliefs we need to learn to tolerate everyone else’s, even as we try to convince them of ours and vice versa, so that in turn they will tolerate ours. This is a hugely important social contract which allows everyone the best opportunity to live as they would like. It’s also a very difficult thing to accomplish as we will find views with which we disagree strongly and to which the first reaction might be to ban them but we must resist it, just as we would hope for the same kindness were someone else making the rules.

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3 thoughts on “Western laws constricting free speech

  1. Pingback: Two years, still going strong | Evidence & Reason

  2. Pingback: If not free speech then what? | Evidence & Reason

  3. Pingback: There IS something outrageous about stamping out dissenting speech | Evidence & Reason

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