Free speech vs… itself?

I hope y’all aren’t getting bored with these “Free speech vs.” stories, because I plan to keep writing them.

In the other installments in this “series” (which really isn’t a series so much as an ad-hoc grouping under a recurring theme), I identified a number of potential threats to free speech: religious authority, state authority (both abroad and here at home), and the Wild West of the internet. Each of these represents an external threat by some authority or group to stifle the legitimate free expression of people (well, except terrorists I suppose). But sometimes the threat to freedom of speech is the content of the speech itself:

Dutch MP on trial for hate speech:

Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders appealed for freedom of expression Monday as he went on trial for alleged hate speech at a time when his popularity and influence in the Netherlands are near all-time highs. Prosecutors say Wilders has incited hate against Muslims, pointing to a litany of quotes and remarks he has made in recent years. In one opinion piece, he wrote “I’ve had enough of Islam in the Netherlands; let not one more Muslim immigrate,” adding “I’ve had enough of the Qur’an in the Netherlands: Forbid that fascist book.”

Geert Wilders is the head of a far-right political party that is based largely on anti-immigrant themes. Anyone who had a picture of the Netherlands (or any of the Scandinavian socialist utopias) as happy places full of peaceful hippies has not been paying attention. Tension with non-native groups is escalating, particularly in the face of the economic crisis. Mr. Wilders has put a voice and a face to this simmering resentment, and has managed to parlay it into real political power. Ordinarily I would be in support of anyone who openly criticizes the advance of any religion in public life, but not when it’s like this:

“I am a suspect here because I have expressed my opinion as a representative of the people,” Wilders told judges at the start of the trial. The trial was adjourned until Tuesday shortly after Wilders’s opening remarks, when he declined to answer any questions from the three judges, invoking his right to remain silent.

This disgusts me. You don’t get to have it both ways – you can’t hide behind free speech protections and then refuse to answer questions. If you have an opinion and you demand the right to express it, then you ought to express it. Hiding behind the principle of free speech to defend your bigotry – and Mr. Wilders is nothing but a bigot, to be clear – is a perversion of the idea of free speech. The whole point of a free speech law is to defend people’s right to engage in legitimate discussion and criticism, not as a skirt to hide behind like a frightened bully whose victim stands up for itself.

While I am not in favour of legal proceedings against hate speech, I am far less in favour of cowardice being wrapped up in the principle in which I believe most strongly.

Westboro Baptist Church at Supreme Court:

The U.S. Supreme Court is to hear arguments Wednesday in a case that pits a dead marine’s grieving father against the Westboro Baptist Church, an obscure Kansas church that protests at soldiers’ funerals. The marine was not gay. However, the members of the church, who gained notoriety for using the same tactics at funerals for AIDS victims and who also oppose abortion, claimed his death was God’s “punishment” for the United States’ tolerance of homosexuality.

Ah yes, Freddie Phelps again. Once again, while ordinarily I would be in support of a group’s right to free speech (even when I absolutely 100% deplore the content of that speech, and would bitch-slap Fred Phelps to death if given the opportunity), this is another case where the right is being abused to serve a perverted end. Westboro Baptist isn’t protesting against a corrupt system, or leveling legitimate criticism, or contributing anything worthwhile to a discussion. Instead, they are hiding behind the Constitution to disrupt the lives of grieving parents for no reason other than to hurt people and gain publicity for their disgusting medieval pseudo-religion. Worst of all, Phelps is deputizing and corrupting children to further his own feeble-minded dictatorial agenda.

While I maintain my distaste for prosecuting hate speech, I bemoan the fact that this stance allows slime like Geert Wilders and Fred Phelps a platform to spread their brainless hateful nonsense. Free speech is supposed to defend unpopular ideas that have a legitimate purpose, a purpose that can be articulated and defended. The greatest threat to free speech therefore isn’t oppressive governments, religious authorities, or the New World Order on teh intarwebz; it’s those scumbags that abuse and debase the principle and undermine the public’s appetite to defend it from these more apparent threats.

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  1. says

    Legitimate, well articulated, purposeful speech rarely needs protection. The ideal of free speech is most noble when it comes to protecting the right to criticize those in power, but to allow those in power to judge which speech is reasonable enough to warrant protection undermines the whole endeavor. The idea that no one can be treated as a criminal merely for the expression of an opinion, no matter how monstrous or incoherent, is something I stand firmly behind.

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