Freedom of Speech: What Side Are You On?

If you’ve been on the internet for any significant period of time, you’d know that the classic liberal concept of ‘freedom of speech’ continues to be a hot-button issue. While I rarely, if ever, see people argue to completely curtail the right to free speech as spelled out in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, people do argue about how far freedom of speech should extend.

Few believe freedom of speech should be limitless, and, indeed, the U.S. Courts agree with that sentiment. Examples of unprotected speech include:

  • Defamation —  knowingly lying about a person in order to besmirch their reputation.
  • Obscenity — speech that the average person would find abhorrent, or speech utterly void of social importance.
  • Child Pornography
  • Offensive Speech — speech inherently likely to provoke a violent reaction or severe emotional distress (satire, hyperbole, and threats of social ostracism/boycotts excepted.)
  • Copywritten Speech
  • Further Government-Based Restrictions — Limits on the speech of government employees, on what speech can be broadcast on radio, on the speech of public school teachers, on the speech of military officers, on the speech of prison inmates, and similar restrictions.

As you’ve probably already noticed, Obscenity and Offensive Speech tend to be a little more open to interpretation. For example, speech considered perfectly acceptable in Las Vegas might be considered obscene in Topeka.

Offensive Speech, particularly how to deal with offensive speech, has become the divisive issue on the internet.

The ‘humanists’, as the first faction tend to call themselves, desire more restrictions on free speech. They typically believe that any speech which marginalizes an already-marginalized person should be restricted. This can be something as blatant as someone shouting ‘White Power’, or as subtle as a person suggesting that ‘IQ and race are correlated’.

The ‘skeptics’, as the second faction tend to refer to themselves, desire less restrictions on free speech. They would contend that the best deterrent to speech is more speech. That is, instead of restricting the man shouting ‘White Power’ from speaking, he be allowed to do so and be subsequently lambasted for it by means of a compelling argument. Instead of restricting the suggestion that ‘IQ and race are correlated’ from being said at all, prove the suggestion wrong.

These factions tend to consider the other partially to blame for the spread of ‘Offensive Ideas’.

The humanists see skeptics as complicit in the offensive speech being spread because they give the offender a forum to do so.

The skeptics see humanists as complicit in the offensive speech being spread because the speech does not get properly rebuked but rather is driven underground where the offender continues to radicalize disenfranchised individuals.

Lastly, the humanist and the skeptic fail to see eye-to-eye when discussing what constitutes incitement to violence.

The humanist would contend that suggesting ‘IQ and race are correlated’ incites violence because of historical precedent. That is, the propagation of this speech necessarily lead to the murder and subjugation of millions throughout history. Therefore, this speech incites violence and must be curtailed.

The skeptic would argue otherwise. Particularly, that the speech did not necessarily lead to murder and subjugation, but that it did so because the speech had the might of political power behind it — might enough to restrict and eliminate oppositional speech. If proper free speech were in effect, the offending speech would not have been able to gain any traction in the first place. In fact, the skeptic might even consider the humanist to be inciting violence because they are using their speech alongside political power to snuff out the speech of the offender.

And then we return to square one, where the humanist tells the skeptic that it is often correct to use the body politic to regulate offensive speech — as with the restrictions imposed by the U.S. Courts above.

 

My Opinion

While I believe both sides have their merit, I tend to side with the skeptic.

Why?

Because I consider ‘marginalized person’ to be too fluid a category to restrict speech on the basis of. I don’t want to be restricted in calling out a Nazi for their ideas in a future where Nazis are considered marginalized.

Even if you were to restrict marginalization to racial marginalization, it could be that Mexican-Americans, for example, cease being a racial minority altogether sometime in the distant future. How would you determine that they’re marginalized or not? Do White Americans suddenly become marginalized? Would Mexican-Americans lobby to keep their marginalized status while actually not being marginalized in any way? The whole thing leads to a load of unnecessary complications.

In addition, I don’t think it’s valid to use historical precedent to back up claims that certain speech incites violence. Now, with the internet, it is a simple thing to find like-minded people in opposition to popular ‘offensive speech’, and shoot it down before it gains any strong traction. While that might change in the future when the internet becomes a more regulated space, I can’t see any radical regimes* popping up in the United States anytime soon.

*Trump may be a buffoon, but he isn’t a radical.

 

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