Sunday, January 24, 2010

Free Speech is a Right, Not a Privilege Granted by the State

By Barry Rubin

“Free speech is not an automatic right. It is not a cover to allow hate speech and outright abuse,” writes a pro-Israel activist in a letter to a newspaper about the viciously nasty, even antisemitic “talk-backs” on its site. He'd be horrified to realize that these are precisely the arguments that have been used most effectively by those undermining democracy, promoting extremist causes, and even demonizing israel to create the mess we face today.

Indeed, that kind of talk makes me shiver no matter who says it. In my opinion free speech is an absolute right, excepting only—as the U.S. Supreme Court wisely ruled—when it is incitement to a real and imminent crime. For the record, offending someone is not a crime nor is criticizing any group, whether fairly or otherwise. Attacks on an individual are covered under clearly defined laws of libel and slander which require proof of far more than criticism alone or saying something the targeted person didn't like.

How ironic that the thin edge of the wedge in subverting the freedom of speech in various countries was to make Holocaust denial a crime. This should never have happened. The result is a panoply of new laws, new “hate crimes,” and even courts to try people for nonsensical charges regarding writings, statements, or even jokes and cartoons.

There is a difference, of course, between free speech and editing or, to use the Internet term for the latter, “moderating.” Editing is a selection made by an individual assigned for that purpose to choose what is best and most interesting for a given publication, as well as improving the quality of writing and reducing of excessive verbiage. If a publication is edited then everyone knows that fact and can choose another publication to read or submit materials. Or even to start one’s own and to compete for viewers or readers. That last point is covered under freedom of the press.

Personally, I don’t find talk-backs to be so useful, don’t read them, and don’t have them on my blog. On the other hand, I cherish the letters I receive from readers which often contain interesting ideas, useful corrections, and even the basis for articles. Given the inevitable result of being clogged with silly-speech (of which only a portion could be labeled “hate-speech” by anyone), I don’t see the point of having such things. But I’m certainly not advocating banning them by law or throwing into prison someone who writes one that offends me.

And there’s a good reason for not doing things like that to everything one doesn’t like. Once there is someone empowered to limit free speech as such, any democratic society is in trouble. The temptations of partisanship or personal (or group) interest are going to be too strong to resist. And everyone has a different idea of what is acceptable or not.

Of course that is what's happening with some targets of alleged hate (which is almost always mere criticism) getting legal protection and others not.

Liberals have traditionally been the strongest of all in opposing censorship and defending the right of free speech against restrictions. In contrast, extreme leftists and rightists are eager to shut up others right to speak. The clever manipulation of categories like race, gender, and religion, has now opened the door for attacking liberty. Unfortunately, people who call themselves "liberals" are now in the forefront of the censorship drive. Just because you find a good excuse for censorship (the old ones regarding religion, decency, and family were also pretty good causes).

Should one be terrified of bigots? Again, in an edited media, such expressions—at least by their quantity—should not be allowed to crowd out everything else. Because such statements are nonsensical, boring, and repetitive, they are of less interest and reduce the space or time for useful dialogue. A good editor or publisher should want to dispense with such things for solid, logical reasons.

Again, though, as the founders of the American republic and of other democratic nations understood, the power to limit free speech is not an authority that should be placed into the hands of anyone, no matter how well-meaning they claim to be and how allegedly noble and undeniably righteous is their real or supposed cause.

A state that puts people on trial for things they’ve said, written, or drawn—as have the Netherlands and Canada's human rights commissions, to name but two—is no longer a truly democratic country. Or how about the United Kingdom where, for example, a blogger who accurately depicted an Anglican cleric as a Holocaust denier and an associate of Islamist terrorists received a threatening visit by police? In the same country, the police tried to prosecute a television network for showing videos of sermons taken inside mosques, though a court finally ruled that the police (that is, the taxpayers) had to pay damaged to the television network.

That power to curb free speech will be inevitably abused to the detriment of society. The only difference between such a system and the Stalinist USSR is one of intensity, not type.

There is also another reason for not limiting free speech. It is better to know what is being said and thought rather than driving it underground. The number, identity, and arguments made by those who express views of various types should be known and understood by those who seek to counter them.

People who believe in democracy should feel that the only ones who will lose by freedom of speech are those whose arguments can be refuted by truth and logic. Come to think of it, that’s precisely what most of those in authority insisting on limiting free speech fear. Shutting up one’s enemies is too attractive a temptation to yield to for any reasons whatsoever.

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