It may seem odd to you, what with a title like "Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Happiness," that I don't often blog about political ideas. I know, sometimes I think I ought to change the name of my blog to reflect my thoughts, but in a sense I feel that regardless of my specific topic, it always falls under those liberties. However, today I want to talk about something I've been thinking about for a couple days now, the freedom of speech.
As with all rights, I feel that this right also ends when it infringes on someone else's rights. Some may claim that my position on abortion doesn't make sense in light of my position on the death penalty, but in the sense that one's right to life ends when it infringes on someone else's right to life it makes perfect sense (at least to me). The freedom of speech though is a bit tougher concept though. In a literal sense one's speech cannot ever really infringe on someone's right to life/speech/etc., unless you count someone simply yelling so loud that no one else is able to speak at all. In the light of the Charlie Hebdo incident, this debate about the freedom of speech including the right to offend, and this debate about liberals stifling intellectual diversity on campus; I've had to rethink what it means to infringe on one's freedom of speech. First, is hate speech a thing? Does it exist and what does it look like? Second, how can one infringe on another's right to speech with speech? Can that ever happen? And third, are there other ways to infringe on freedom of speech and expression? Can and does that happen?
So, hate speech, what is it? Should the government regulate/restrict it? What about decency? Should the government regulate that? Wikipedia has two definitions that are quite significantly different: "[O]utside the law, speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of attributes such as gender, ethnic origin, religion, race, disability, or sexual orientation." That definition is way too broad, it's basically saying, hate speech is any bigoted communication. Is saying that you dislike someone because of X characteristic wrong? That seems clearly covered in free speech. If you want free speech you have to be willing to sometimes be offended. Offensive speech is not and should not be defined and enforced by law. It's a slippery slope to over-censorship. The second definition is better: "In law, hate speech is any speech, gesture or conduct, writing, or display which is forbidden because it may incite violence or prejudicial action against or by a protected individual or group, or because it disparages or intimidates a protected individual or group. The law may identify a protected individual or a protected group by certain characteristics." (emphasis added) If I say, "So-and-So (S&S) is a jerk." I'm not using hate speech! That, by itself is not hate speech. If I say, "S&S is a jerk and you ought to hate S&S too, S&S did this, that, and the other (all true), so you need to get on board with hating S&S. If you don't hate S&S you're wrong. S&S is evil incarnate, etc. etc." That seems pretty clear cut to me, that is hate speech. I'm encouraging and even shaming you into hating or treating S&S in a particularly bad way. Notice what I didn't include there. If I say S&S is doing some sin, like homosexuality or stealing etc. That is not hate speech. Perhaps it borders on indecent speech, as in, I don't walk up to people every day and confront them in their sin. In fact if you do, you're not following the Bible's guidelines on that, as Christians are supposed to confront other Christians on their sins, not non-Christians. That's not to say that sermons and evangelists ought not talk about the doctrines around sin, it's just that evangelism in a sense doesn't really need to tell people that they're sinners. Romans 1:18, 19 makes it clear that people, really, deep down know when they sin. It may be offensive to some of you, but really think about what you've done in your life and I'm sure you'll see that every time you've done something that is wrong, deep down you knew it was so and felt remorse for doing it. (This does not necessarily include psychopaths, that's an issue for another discuss/time.)
So, hate speech is when someone incites or tries to incite hatred and mistreatment of a person or group of people. Saying someone has sinned is not hatred. Indeed if you think about the message of the Gospel, it's one of the most loving things a person can do. But I digress. The next (and arguably more important) question is, "Should the government regulate/enforce hate speech laws?" Before I get started on this, don't say, "you can't legislate morality." That's complete crap. All legislation, even seemingly unrelated legislative acts, are a form of legislating morality. So, in a sense I'd be perfectly happy with legislated speech, but in another sense that scares me quite a bit. If you listen to second debate I mentioned above, about liberals stifling intellectual freedom on campus, you'll hear arguments that on campuses all around the U.S. liberals are trampling on the freedom of speech. That's one of my fears on this issue. I know that rights, once given up to the government, will never be gotten back. And, if the government is going to restrict free speech, it will most likely err on the side of liberal ideals. There should be at least some limitation on speech, hate speech should certainly be treated as different than free speech. I certainly don't have a problem with the right to free speech including a certain amount of offensive speech, but there should be a limit. I don't want the government to draw that line though. If people would have more self restraint, we wouldn't need government intervention.
Let's look at infringements on free speech. As I often repeat, one's rights end where they infringe on another's rights, but that's much more nuanced when it comes to speech. In a very literal sense there's not really a way to use one's speech to restrict someone else's free speech (excluding the already mentioned possibility of using a super megaphone). However, there is a way of using one's speech to minimize or marginalize someone to the point that they are not able to speak freely. Say for example, people call me a bigot or intolerant so much that I'm no longer respected (not that I'm really all that respected). Those people can use their freedom to speak their mind (even in an offensive way), to the extreme point that restricts my freedom to express my opinions. This is obviously more nebulous than murder, assault, etc., but the point is still there you can use free speech to limit someone else's freedom of speech. However, the same comments all apply with regards to litigation. It would be a terrible idea for the government to try to limit free speech in order to limit this type of abuse of the freedom. It is too nuanced to be dealt with by legislation, and the right to free speech includes some amount of the right to offend. No matter what position one takes, we must all be prepared to accept the idea that someone will probably say something that will offend us. Offense is a regular part of freedom to express oneself.
There are other, more obvious ways people, especially those in positions of power, can limit other's freedom of speech. As the debate mentioned above and some of the research conducted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education indicates, liberal administrators on college campuses all around the U.S. are doing just that. They are using their positions of influence to restrict or limit various groups' freedom of speech. The vast majority of academics are decidedly liberal, and in many cases they are using their positions of authority to limit conservatives' freedom of speech. That's a scary thought. If free speech is restricted, it will be on the side of liberals, and against conservatives. I am a conservative, well, sort of. Regardless, I hope the government keeps its nose out of free speech. However, with free speech, comes a price tag ... be prepared to be offended, and that's okay. Free speech, will mean that someone will eventually step on your toes, and that's okay.
|Image source here.