Via Jerry Coyne, I learned about a debate in 2006 in which Christopher Hitchens gave a full-throated defense of freedom of speech and on the evils of religion, and how religion survives by restricting or intimidating speech. His talk lasts about 20 minutes and is in four parts, the first of which is below, with the rest being prompted at the end.
I am becoming more and more of a First Amendment absolutist on free speech. I can appreciate the possibility that there might have to be a line drawn in very narrowly defined cases. For example, commercial speech is not entitled to the same protections as political speech and there are limits due to defamation, copyright violation, child pornography, etc.
But when it comes to ideas or advocacy, it is hard to justify any limits and some of those who seek to limit it seem to do so out of fear that their views cannot stand up to scrutiny. Religion, for example, is one area where adherents often seek to suppress speech critical of it. The United Nations is currently in the process of approving a resolution that seeks to set standards for “intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of … religion and belief.” As George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley says, “The unstated enemy of religion in this conference is free speech, and the Obama administration is facilitating efforts by Muslim countries to “deter” some speech in the name of human rights… While the resolution also speaks to combating incitement to violence, the core purpose behind this and previous measures has been to justify the prosecution of those who speak against religion.” The chief advocates for this resolution is the Organization of Islamic Cooperation consisting of 56 Islamic states but it is being supported by the US under the guise of suppressing ‘hate speech’.
I am always wary of attempts to limit speech on the basis that such restrictions are only aimed at hatemongers or to improve human rights. When authorities want to restrict fundamental rights, their initial targets are always awful individuals because they know that people are more apt to be swayed by the nature of people than by abstract principles. This is why the targets of indefinite detention, torture, and state-sanctioned murder are, initially at least, people who have been first demonized as to be almost sub-human.
The lines that have been drawn limiting speech so far, including the celebrated prohibition against falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater, seem to me to be indefensible. That famous line was drawn by US Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in the 1919 case Schenck vs. United States, in the course of upholding the conviction of people who distributed flyers opposing the military draft during World War I. In popular discourse, the ‘fire in a crowded theater’ example is often used by people as setting the limit on what the free speech allows.
What is not often appreciated is that limitations on free speech were loosened later in the 1969 case Brandenburg vs. Ohio which overturned the conviction of a KKK man who had been advocating ‘revengeance’ against the US government and others for allegedly taking away the rights of white people. The Supreme Court said in its Brandenburg opinion that prior successive Supreme Court rulings
have fashioned the principle that the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action. [My emphasis-MS]
Measured by this test, Ohio’s Criminal Syndicalism Act cannot be sustained. The Act punishes persons who “advocate or teach the duty, necessity, or propriety” of violence “as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reform”; or who publish or circulate or display any book or paper containing such advocacy; or who “justify” the commission of violent acts “with intent to exemplify, spread or advocate the propriety of the doctrines of criminal syndicalism”; or who “voluntarily assemble” with a group formed “to teach or advocate the doctrines of criminal syndicalism.”
All those who advocate restriction of speech because it might harm others are faced with the awkward situation that someone has to be first exposed to the speech in order to judge whether it will harm others and thus should be censored or not. Why are they immune to the purported degradation that they fear will befall others who are exposed to it? And to whom would we cede the right to decide what the rest of us can hear or read? As Hitchens said, the ideal of freedom of speech is not merely to protect the rights of the speaker but also that of the listener. When we are denied the right to hear a different point of view, even if that view belongs to a minority of one and is widely considered to be cranky or outlandish or bigoted or hateful, we are impoverished.
As I said above, one area where freedom of speech involving ideas might conceivably be justified is with regards to children, but even here we must be wary of being over-protective and actually stultifying their intellectual development. Children may not be as vulnerable as we may think when it comes to the effect of language and ideas.