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The decline of free speech in the west

Jonathan Turley has a new op-ed that gives four categories of speech that western governments are increasingly using as grounds for limiting it: speech that it is blasphemous, hateful, discriminatory, and deceitful.

He says that this is further evidence of a dangerous trend.

Such efforts focus not on the right to speak but on the possible reaction to speech — a fundamental change in the treatment of free speech in the West. The much-misconstrued statement of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes that free speech does not give you the right to shout fire in a crowded theater is now being used to curtail speech that might provoke a violence-prone minority. Our entire society is being treated as a crowded theater, and talking about whole subjects is now akin to shouting “fire!”

The very right that laid the foundation for Western civilization is increasingly viewed as a nuisance, if not a threat. Whether speech is deemed imflammatory [sic] or hateful or discriminatory or simply false, society is denying speech rights in the name of tolerance, enforcing mutual respect through categorical censorship.

As in a troubled marriage, the West seems to be falling out of love with free speech.

It is a good article, worth reading in full.

In the US, it is now frowned upon when people use racist, sexist, or homophobic slurs or try to rile up people along sectarian lines. Not that such things never occur but those who use such language are seen as clearly beyond the pale of civilized society. And this was achieved without censorship. When we try to ban or censor speech, all we end up doing is making First Amendment martyrs out of the very people we despise for using hateful speech, people like Pamela Geller with her anti-Muslim subway posters or the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church.

Comments

  1. slc1 says

    The quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes leaves out a very important word. The actual wording is that free speech does not give one the right to falsely yell fire in a crowed theater.

  2. Alverant says

    Speaking of WBC, I understand that at one of their military funeral protests a marine went off and punched one of them.

  3. eric says

    I was going to say something similar; that that particular limit is really based on denying deceit, yes. But its a deceit that could reasonably be construed as resulting in injury by people trying their best to avoid injury.

    Turley is really talking about the heckler’s veto. I.e., how to respond to people not trying their best to avoid injury, but rather promising to mete it out of some statement gets said. This is very far removed from Holmes’ example.

  4. says

    Please call me out if you think I’m way over the edge, but something I was thinking is how there could be many hypocrites over what happened to Malala Yousafzai. If people think that speech that is blasphemous is criminal, then Malala was a criminal. If people think that blasphemy can cause violence (and thus why blasphemy must be criminalized), then Malala caused the violence against herself. She got what was coming to her. Yet, many people are outraged at the Taliban, not her.

    It is good that people are having the proper emotional reaction to Malala’s situation. It is unfortunate that many didn’t with the “Innocence of Muslims” video and that they cannot see how much the two situations have in common.

  5. reliwhat says

    You should tell that to PZ, he recently posted something on free speech, he might be able to learn a thing or two from your post Mano.

  6. says

    When we try to ban or censor speech, all we end up doing is making First Amendment martyrs out of the very people we despise for using hateful speech, people like Pamela Geller with her anti-Muslim subway posters or the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church.

    Really? How many people are really thinking of them as “martyrs?” The only people who think they have anything decent to say, are the bigots who already share their hatred. So far at least, I see no sign of them gaining any sympathy outside that narrow group.

    Seriously, do a little thinking before you trot out the same old rhetoric over and over.

  7. says

    Because the pond-scum who made “Innocence of Muslims” deserve just as much sympathy and respect as a girl who was shot in the head? I don’t think so.

  8. jhendrix says

    The article articulates most of the fears I have over potential restrictions of free speech in the US, but potentially other western societies.

    I wish I had better options on what to do in order to stop this problem before it gets too far along.

  9. Chiroptera says

    It is unfortunate that many didn’t with the “Innocence of Muslims” video and that they cannot see how much the two situations have in common.

    In one situation, a young girl expressed her desires for more equality and better life for women who are oppressed in her society.

    In the other, a group of bigots deliberately provoked a violent reaction in order to try to use that reaction to further their bigoted political agenda.

    What are the similarities?

  10. Mano Singham says

    Being a First Amendment martyr does not mean that you are popular or that people agree with you. It means that your rights were infringed upon. The Westboro Church and Geller have both gone to court and won their cases on the grounds that their free speech rights were being denied.

  11. says

    Yes, and we’ve already discussed how dead wrong the court ruling in Gellar’s case was. And again, I’m not seeing any sympathy growing for that lot as a result of any efforts to keep their overt racism out of public places.

  12. says

    Not that such things never occur but those who use such language are seen as clearly beyond the pale of civilized society. And this was achieved without censorship.

    Horsemuffins: when certain language is seen as beyond the pale of a civilized society, that concensus is followed by a general agreement, in law and common practice, not to allow such language to be prominent in public places.

  13. says

    It’s not speech that is blasphemous or hateful or whatever – it’s speech that is not backed by wealth or power. Apparently if you’re the Koch brothers you can say whatever you want, even if it’s homophobic or racist or arguing for wars of aggression.

    Free speech is a good thing but the real game that’s afoot is aggregation of power.

  14. says

    Good for that marine! He probably recognized the hatred from his previous dealings with the Taliban.

    By beating someone for saying something he disagrees with, he was certainly working from their playbook.

  15. says

    Yeah, because one guy punching someone who’s insulting him at a time of grief is exactly the same as a military organization hunting down a girl and shooting her in the head.

  16. smrnda says

    My own take is certain restrictions aren’t really a violation of free speech. Telling some jackasses they can’t protest at a funeral only takes 1 place away from their venues. It isn’t like they can’t get their message out. I can’t decide to get up in a cafe and start carrying on loudly without being ejected; I will be told that I am disturbing the patrons and have to leave no matter how much I rant about my right to free speech.

    I thought you paid for funerals, so people attending a funeral have paid for the use of private property. Let’s say a theater is putting on a play. I decide to stand on the sidewalk outside of the theater making a lot of noise with a bullhorn during the performance. I’m not 100% sure, but being directed elsewhere hasn’t really silenced me. It’s just enabled the people who want to watch the play to hear what is going on.

    Also – agree with marcus on that free speech exists only as a meaningless abstraction for most of us without millions or billions to shove our views down everybody’s throat.

  17. schmeer says

    Raging bee,
    You’ve put forward some awful arguments here. You support the use of violence in response to speech, and the restriction of free speech. You sound like you’re arguing for the Taliban.

  18. Stevarious, Public Health Problem says

    No. As much as I think those horrible WBC people are deserving of approbation, violence helps them and their cause.

  19. says

    Who said it’s exactly the same? You did.

    Both are instances of violent coercion applied to prevent someone else’s speech. Do you question that?

  20. Dunc says

    I have to say, I’m somewhat curious as to the assertion that free speech rights “laid the foundation for Western civilization”. What was Socrates sentenced to death for again?

  21. Mano Singham says

    Wasn’t it because of impiety and corrupting the minds of the young? It not directly related to free speech.

  22. Dunc says

    Impiety and corrupting the minds of the young – through speech.

    Anyway, my point was that whilst free speech protections of various sorts do have a fairly long historical pedigree (especially if you overlook matters such as wealth, class, religion and gender), I’m really not at all sure that the claim stands up to scrutiny. The reference to Socrates was just snark.

  23. Paul W., OM says

    What was Socrates sentenced to death for again?

    As I understand it, perhaps too much influenced by I.F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates, he was actually put to death for being a theorist justifying contempt for the middle class and rule by aristocratic oligarchs, and for helping foment literal revolution that not only might occur but did in fact occur, and for continuing to argue against democracy even after a counterrevolution booted out the aristocratic oligarchs and reinstalled the democracy.

    IIRC, some of Socrates’ students and/or sympathizers were apparently involved in an elitist rebellion that actually overthrew the Athenian democracy and replaced it with an oppressive oligarchy.

    That’s a piece of context that most modern people don’t have, when they hear about Socrates being killed for “corrupting youth.”

    Another is that around the time of Socrates, democratic Athens was engaged in a long cold and sometimes hot war with Sparta, which was very militaristic, authoritarian, and illiberal. Each of those city-states had an alliance of satellite client states arrayed against each other, sorta like the Allies vs. the Axis in WWII, and sorta like the NATO vs. the Soviet bloc during the cold war.

    The kind of political philosophy that Socrates was spouting in the years after the Athenian democratic counterrevolution was sorta like Communists in the US spouting Leninist propaganda at the height of the Cold War.

    Given that Athens had actually had its own authoritarian revolution and democratic counterrevolution, it was also rather a like Nazi-like propaganda being spouted in democratic postwar Europe, suggesting that it was a real shame Hitler lost last time, and we should really try that sort of thing again.

    Stone argues that yes, Socrates was killed for exercising his right to free speech and refusing to get the hell out of town when told to, and that was wrong, but the fact that it happened so late in the game actually shows but that Athenians were way more committed to free speech than it may seem, and more than most modern Westerners are—they let him spout that sort of inflammatory political theory, which most Athenians thought had vividly demonstrated its destructiveness right there at home, for years before and after wars to destroy and rebuild their democracy, and they only killed him because they finally had enough, and told him to leave town or else—and he called their bluff and chose “or else.”

    Here’s part of the charges against Socrates, as recounted by Xenophon:

    Socrates cause[d] his associates to despise the established laws when he dwelt on the folly of appointing state officers by ballot? a principle which, he said, no one would care to apply in selecting a pilot or a flute- player or in any similar case, where a mistake would be far less disastrous than in matters political. Words like these, according to the accuser, tended to incite the young to contemn the established constitution, rendering them violent and headstrong.

    To post-counterrevolution Athenians, it seemed that Socrates was continuing to yell “fire” in a crowded theater, even after a stampede caused by that sort of thing had gotten a bunch of people they knew trampled to death.

    Stone argues that the stuff about the “gods” is entwined with the political stuff, and may have been mostly symbolic of the political charges. It’s interesting that the town gods of Athens (IIRC) were Trade and Democracy—symbols of their political commitment to make their own way, and not to be ruled by oligarchs, especially a wealthy hereditary aristocracy. Athenians thought Athens was a city of free people who worked for a living and ruled themselves just fine; it was what they were proudest of, as a group. But Socrates taught their kids not to respect their goofy little gods that symbolized their stupid little political theory.

    BTW, I’m not a historian or classicist, and I don’t have a perfect memory, so don’t trust me on any of this. I did think The Trial of Socrates was a great read.

  24. says

    Really? How has it helped them, exactly? Are more people suddenly thinking they’re right, and joining their protests? Can you point to even one incident that suppoorts your lazy assertion?

  25. says

    Rules and decisions made by organizations, both public and private, regarding what sort of language gets to be prominently displayed on their property, or published in their pages.

  26. says

    I question your shameful and morally retarded attempt to equate two incidents that are totally unrelated. If you can’t see the difference, or don’t care about the difference, then you’re a totally disgusting excuse for a human being, and there’s no use talking to you.

  27. says

    What was Socrates sentenced to death for again?

    How is Socrates even relevant here? Someone was wrongly punished by a different government in a different era, therefore the New York subway system can’t keep overtly hateful and denigrating posters off its walls? That’s your argument?

    I thought your analogies were silly, but then I saw your non-sequiturs…

  28. Chiroptera says

    … I.F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates….

    Heh. After reading that book, I just can’t read Plato’s dialogues in the same way as before.

  29. Jared A says

    Lucky for you that Mano hasn’t taken you at your word, deemed some of your speech “overtly hateful and denigrating” and banned you.

  30. Corvus illustris says

    Gentle[people]–is this Concord?

    The Marine was presumably not acting in an official capacity as representing the Marine Corps. The question of free speech that Turley poses is really one of legal, governmental (or de facto or quasi-governmental, e.g., the Taliban) suppression, not private, personal reaction to inappropriate and offensive private speech. The Westboro cretins are uttering “fighting words.”

  31. Corvus illustris says

    This is the 21st-c. version of the earlier observation (Pulitzer? one of the Sulzbergers?) that freedom of the press was avaiable to those who owned printing presses.

  32. Corvus illustris says

    … yes, Socrates was killed for exercising his right to free speech and refusing to get the hell out of town when told to …

    Ostracism was really a marvelous, humane approach to dealing with public figures who were causing problems–just throw them out of Athens for ten years. Some even made political comebacks–Cimon comes to mind. Unfortunately, it had fallen into desuetude by the time of Socrates’ trial.

  33. Corvus illustris says

    Mano seems to be a free-speech absolutist, and that may be reflected in the generally high level of civility exhibited by the comments on this blog.

  34. pramod says

    lol, mano, you think this is a good article!

    Here’s a serious question for you. Why do you think we protect free speech?

    I’ll give you my answer. We protect free speech because we expect that certain unpopular/uncomfortable opinions may be beneficial to society. We don’t want to shut people up for stating uncomfortable truths because some of these truths may be the key to taking human society forward.

    Now, a necessary requirement for speech to be beneficial to society is that it be constructive. (One could argue that I’m just being tautological here and I would agree with that argument.) Just calling people names is usually not constructive and neither in many of these cases is insulting someone’s religion or culture. A lot of the free speech the article mentions is neither unpopular nor uncomfortable, it’s just an excuse for being racist to muslims and/or brown people and it really doesn’t do any good except perpetuate unequal power structures.

    This is especially important becuase this speech when coming from the religious right has the objective of dehumanizing non-westerners. In a climate where the US, Israel and Britain seem to think it’s perfectly acceptable for them to go around killing brown people for fun, this speech legitimizes this oppression by projecting a narrative that “we” are civilized, “they” are barbarians. Ergo, it’s perfectly fine to kill them. Clearly, this isn’t true and telling people that this is true is neither honest nor constructive.

    As we’re evolving as a society we’re getting better at determining what speech is actually constructive from society’s standpoint. And this is why we have “less” free speech now.

    This not a bad thing. It just means we’re growing up.

  35. Mano Singham says

    It seems to me that while certain types of speech helps in the dehumanization of people, the reason why some people are deemed worthy of dehumanization is a prior question with speech just one means of achieving that goal. The colonial experience of the British shows that they were quite good at dehumanizing entire nations and continents in a very urbane way.

    The problem arises in deciding what is constructive speech and who gets to make the decision as to what speech is allowed and what is not. To whom would you give that power?

  36. Paul W., OM says

    What on Earth do you think I’m basically saying, or trying to imply?

    Please quote me directly and tell me exactly what you disagree with, and why. I am honestly confused.

    I was only meaning to answer the question of what Socrates was accused of, which I think is a historically and philosophically interesting one, and not quite what most people think. I haven’t thought much about how that relates to the OP, or to any live issue here.

    Sorry if it was too much of a derail, or I’ve stuck my foot in it in ways I don’t understand. I just thought the question that came up was interesting.

    And by the way, about your tone in calling me on whatever you’re calling me on:

    FUCK YOU

  37. Mano Singham says

    As far as I am concerned, I enjoy this kind of interesting information being added to a discussion, and do not care that much if it is directly related to the original post or not. After all, few interesting conversations end up close to where they started…

    It also reminded me that it is about time I read The Trial of Socrates again.

  38. says

    I’m not sure a jury would be all that sympathetic to a “victim” who had clearly gone WAAAY out of his way to insult grieving people and provoke hostility.

  39. says

    Gee, I wonder why that is…maybe it’s because Mano is grown-up enough to tell the difference between a legal or moral argument and calling someone a savage and urging others to demonize and attack him? That might be a good example for you to follow, if you get my subtle hint…

  40. pramod says

    To whom would you give that power?

    We’ve decided that governments can regulate what we eat, what we drive, where we live, how we work, who I can marry, what I can get thrown into jail for and so on. Why shouldn’t governments regulate speech as well? In fact, they already do because libel and child pornography laws exist and I think most people would agree that these are (in general) beneficial to society.

    We may need to talk about what we need to do so that governments can do this fairly and efficiently but that is a completely different discussion.

    It seems to me that while certain types of speech helps in the dehumanization of people, the reason why some people are deemed worthy of dehumanization is a prior question with speech just one means of achieving that goal.

    I don’t understand this. What are other means of dehumanization that don’t involve written/spoken expression?

  41. says

    Now, a necessary requirement for speech to be beneficial to society is that it be constructive…

    Agreed. Another requirement for free speech to be beneficial is that it not become a tool for mob rule or majority tyranny. Which is pretty much what Pam Gellar’s racist posters do in public transit stations: make certain people feel unsafe or unwelcome in public places where they have every legal right (and a real need) to be.

    “Freedom of speech” was never meant to include overtly insulting, harassing, or threatening innocent people in public places, either orally or in prominent posters.

  42. says

    Excuse me while I belabor the obvious: we already give that power — and, more importantly, that RESPONSIBILITY — to the people in charge of various public facilities. Facilities accessible to the public, to serve a public good, are expected to accomodate all who have a legal right to be there, without creating a hostile environment for any subgroup of such people, or in any way implying that they have less right to be there, or are less safe there, than anyone else.

  43. Mano Singham says

    Speech is in a different class from those other aspects of our lives. We do give power to people to control certain aspects of our lives but speech is different in that it is the means by which we can change those rules and take back that power. Take away speech and we lose the means of campaigning for change. Speech is what determines the rules of the game. Cede that power to a small group and you effectively cede to them the ability to make all the rules. This is why totalitarian states control the media so tightly.

    As to the second point, you are correct. What I meant and should have written is missing one word and should have read: “It seems to me that while certain types of speech helps in the dehumanization of people, the reason why some people are deemed worthy of dehumanization is a prior question with HATEFUL speech just one means of achieving that goal.”

    This happens all the time in wars. For example, the people of Iraq were dehumanized in the lead up to the Iraq war, so much so that then US Secretary of State Madeline Albright was able to say, with no uproar, that the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children because of US sanctions were worth it to achieve US goals. The decision to dehumanize those children was prior to using language to achieve that goal. She did not say it in an overtly hateful way. It was all done in very polite language even though the message being delivered was, in my opinion, an utter obscenity.

    Should she not have been allowed to say such things? And who would decide whether what she said constitutes speech that should be forbidden?

  44. says

    We do give power to people to control certain aspects of our lives but speech is different in that it is the means by which we can change those rules and take back that power.

    A meaningless word-salad of abstractions that says nothing about real-world situations where various rights have to be interpreted, upheld and reconciled. (Also, you fail to define exactly what you mean by “speech.” Not all things labelled “speech” are equally empowring.)

    Cede that power to a small group and you effectively cede to them the ability to make all the rules. This is why totalitarian states control the media so tightly.

    Therefore…what? Adopting a code of public manners leads to Stalinism? If that were the case, the entire West would have been Stalinized long ago.

  45. Corvus illustris says

    For example, the people of Iraq were dehumanized in the lead up to the Iraq war … [discussion of the shameful Albright statement follows]

    I remembered this matter as having arisen in the context of the second Clinton election, checked that it was indeed 1996, and thought at first it was an anachronism. No, it’s not; it’s very perceptive of our single-party state in operation. The only question was on whose watch we would have the war.

    You know, that woman was born Czech, and Jewish. Similarities with other mass killings of children should have occurred to her. Deaths from disease don’t count, I suppose; rather like starvation in mid-19th-c. Ireland.

  46. Jared A says

    Holy crap.

    Of course I don’t think mano should ban you. My point was that follows from your logic, not mine.

    You routinely call people monsters and and worse, but the first person to call you out on being a hypocrite has crossed the line?

    It is now clear to me what types of speech you feel should be protected and what types should not.

  47. Corvus illustris says

    “Freedom of speech” was never meant to include overtly insulting, harassing, or threatening innocent people in public places, either orally or in prominent posters.”

    It would clarify the discussion if you could clarify “never.” Of course incitement to riot or felony and the later-defined “fighting words” were never protected, but when we get to such a cold medium as a poster on a wall and no overt threat is made, it’s less clear. Much muting of utterance, in the US at least (I don’t know from what perspective you write), has been accomplished by the Mark Twain mechanism: “It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either.

  48. Corvus illustris says

    So it all comes back to Juvenal’s question of who is to watch those who watch for corruption, followed by his observation that once watchers have been appointed, corruption is easy: just corrupt the watchers.

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