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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Free Speech vs Political Correctness

FIRE's Speech Code of the the Month comes from Jacksonville State University, Jacksonville, Alabama:
No student shall threaten, offend, or degrade anyone on University owned or operated property.
It's easy to offend, and as the FIRE article observes, the only way to comply with this policy would be silence. There are clear limits to free speech. If I see my neighbor in town and tell him I'll beat his head in if he doesn't take down the campaign sign on his lawn, I'm threatening him. He can rightly call the police. If I walk up to him and tell him that he's a brainless fool for backing that candidate, I'm just proving that I'm an idiot and a bad neighbor.

Julian Bond's speech at Fayetteville State University on February 1st may have offended some people but he has the constitutional right to say these things:
Civil rights activist and NAACP Chairman Julian Bond delivered a blistering partisan speech at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina last night, equating the Republican Party with the Nazi Party and characterizing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her predecessor, Colin Powell, as "tokens."

"The Republican Party would have the American flag and the swastika flying side by side," he charged.
He referred to former Attorney General John Ashcroft as J. Edgar Ashcroft. He compared Bush's judicial nominees to the Taliban.
I just thought I'd introduce that note of reality before the main topic.

DU normally seems rather fond of hate-speech laws, but this large thread on DU responding to the news that the French editor was fired for publishing the Muhammed cartoons that caused the Danish and now international controversy takes a very different tone. Most of the posters think it is outrageous for Muslims to expect that Western society will impose a code suppressing speech that offends a particular religious group.

But some posters point out that European countries don't have our rights of free speech:
142. Free Speech?
Europe is a place where you can go to jail if you say that the Holocaust didn't happen.
Another person posts this cartoon:

That's true and that's fair. Norwegians are debating the point:
"The point is not to restrict freedom of speech but to give it direction so that weak groups do not feel insulted or mocked. If we do nothing the differences within Norwegian society will increase in the future," Raja told newspaper Dagsavisen.
"I would like a new blasphemy regulation that defines limits for what type of offensive expression shall be allowed towards society's minorities," Raja said.

Professor of Public Law Eivind Smith at the University of Oslo is skeptical but believes it is high time to discuss views of blasphemy.

Norwegian law already forbids threats and insults to person on the background of their skin color, nationality, outlook on life or sexual preference. Smith believes it is important than any future tightening of the law favors human rights rather than religion.
The moment you ban "offensive" speech against certain groups you take society into a pitched battle for possession of the public square. Europe has done this, and it is not surprising that the battle is occurring. It is a battle which truly disfavors minorities like Jews, because once the right to say what you are really thinking becomes a political matter, the larger and more fanatical groups win. That's a political reality. It's the reality that Jews are experiencing on the streets of Paris.

But if Muslims are forbidden from saying (and they are in several European countries) that homosexuals are immoral, then isn't it at least somewhat reasonable for Muslims to believe that they have the right to claim that mocking their religion is wrong even according to the rules of European society? I'm not saying that it is right for Islamic countries to withdraw their ambassadors from Denmark, etc, but the cartoonist above has a real point.

I just don't think we can afford to go this route in the USA. I think we have to permit offensive speech in order to permit honest debate and guard the rights of minorities. If we take that stance, then we can say that those Danish cartoons are indeed allowable expressions of free speech. But if we take the stance that certain groups may not be criticized especially because of their minority status, then we are hypocrites if we now claim that other minority groups can't claim that same right for themselves. Ideologies and religions that society disapproves of do end up becoming minority groups, so those groups will inevitably claim special-protection status under such laws.

Canada has taken the hate-speech route, and I don't think it's working out well there. See this British Columbia Civil Liberties Association position paper. Hate-speech/bias crime laws have been enacted in states and localities in the USA, and are constantly being proposed and passed at the federal level. There is something very odd about passing laws that view crimes committed against certain types of people differently than objectively similar crimes committed against another type of person. It used to be called discrimination.

I think David Duke is an immoral person. I think Phelps is an immoral person. I think Cindy Sheehan is an immoral person, and I think Joel Stein demonstrated his immoral philosophy when he wrote this:
The truth is that people who pull triggers are ultimately responsible, whether they're following orders or not. An army of people making individual moral choices may be inefficient, but an army of people ignoring their morality is horrifying.
I do sympathize with people who joined up to protect our country, especially after 9/11, and were tricked into fighting in Iraq. I get mad when I'm tricked into clicking on a pop-up ad, so I can only imagine how they feel.

But when you volunteer for the U.S. military, you pretty much know you're not going to be fending off invasions from Mexico and Canada. So you're willingly signing up to be a fighting tool of American imperialism, for better or worse. Sometimes you get lucky and get to fight ethnic genocide in Kosovo, but other times it's Vietnam.
I know this is all easy to say for a guy who grew up with money, did well in school and hasn't so much as served on jury duty for his country. But it's really not that easy to say because anyone remotely affiliated with the military could easily beat me up, and I'm listed in the phone book.
This is an example of every demagogic rhetorical trick ever used in classical propaganda pieces, ending with the implication that the ravening hordes of tools of American imperialism often rampage through the streets of LA beating up brave wussy columnists who dare to oppose them. How intellectually dishonest can one be without feeling some shame?

I also think their right to say what they believe is the best innoculation possible against their particular moral diseases, because they do not offer an attractive vision for society. I believe any person ought to have the right to criticize religions, philosophies and ideologies. The great debate that spawned this nation should not be suppressed in any way because it has also spawned a moderate political culture. We can look at Europe and see that the opposite approach seems to fan fanaticism and divisiveness rather than alleviating it.

The rights of free speech, religion (conscience) and political assembly contained in the First Amendment are an expression of faith in reason and an appeal to reason. Two hundred odd years of these doctrines have generated a more reasoned and tolerant culture, whereas as all of the moral utopias ever established have not. We ought to stick with what works, and that's my appeal to reason.

Freedom of expression must be absolute otherwise it isn't truely free.
Well - it can't be absolute or someone would claim that beating another person up was expression. But there can be very few conditions placed on it or the mere words become a mockery.
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