Why we must defend and expand freedom of speech

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.


  1. Henry Gale says

    Just curious Mano, a great deal of the speech on the internet is anonymous. That anonymity seems to have good and bad effects.

    That said, what would your opinion be of a national registry where people had to log there real name in order to access blogs, forums, and other online discussion websites.

    There would be no restriction on speech, only the removal of anonymity behind that speech.

    Would some speech be more civil if you had to put your name on it?

  2. M.Nieuweboer says

    “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.”
    Do you really think the survivor of Auschwitz is impoverished if he/she on his/her own request is denied the right to hear David Irving’s views on the Holocaust?

    “And to whom would we cede the right to decide what the rest of us can hear or read?”
    Parliament. Indeed every single exception has to debated and carefully formulated again. Then it confirms the rule.
    There is a German saying: every consequence leads to the devil.

  3. stonyground says

    On the blogs that I frequent there are a few people who do use their real names but most people prefer not to. There are certain dangers in putting your real name up on the internet and for that reason most people don’t. Speaking for myself, I use Stonyground and no other name when posting. I consider it very important that Stonyground is not perceived as an obnoxious arse or a troll. I know that there are people out there who get themselves banned from fora and then re-register using a different name, I would describe these people as being anonymous. I on the other hand, am sort of half anonymous because regulars will get to know me despite not knowing my real name.

  4. Mano Singham says

    I have no problems with anonymity so would not see the benefits of a registry of the kind Henry mentions. Since governments especially have the power to get through firewalls, the existence of such a registry may have a chilling effect on people who are challenging them.

    As for incivility, if people want to be uncivil, let them. I just ignore people who say things that I think have no value.

    Some time ago, I wrote a post on this topic that may help clarify my views.

  5. Mano Singham says

    But is it really a good thing is we let some people decide what everyone can hear or read? That way can lead to the suppression of minority views.

  6. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Like stonyground, I have practical reasons for using a pseudonym. I have been threatened for some remarks I made on the internet and, while the likelihood those threats would be carried out, I am not going to make some bully’s job easier for him by giving my real name.

    Besides, how can you tell what’s a pseudonym or not? If I posted as “Joseph Pudlerowski” would you assume that was my real name? It isn’t, but I could easily use it.

  7. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Sorry, one phrase should read: while the likelihood those threats would be carried out are small,

  8. Chris Campbell says

    To your first point -- yes, I do. The hearer has the opportunity to realize, perhaps for one thing, “Hey, that guy is a rotten person, and I will not patronize an organization that employes him, and encourage my friends to do so as well.” Whether or not the hearer chooses to do so is not really the point. Just because something is difficult to hear does not mean it is not important to hear. And the Auschwitz survivor is of course an extreme example -- there are people who go through life seeming to do little else than find something to be offended by. Even such now innocuous things as Jazz music, or even Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, were once considered very offensive. Should we have gone by the wishes of those “requesting to be denied the right” to hear those? And should they be allowed to deny my right as well? As Hitch said, you can end up fashioning a stick that someone else will later use to beat you with.

    Second -- I’m an American, and you obviously have far more faith in your Parliament than I have in our Congress. The point of our First Amendment is precisely that -- no one can be trusted with it, so we simply must make it a fundamental right. I know whenever anyone says that they should be able to decide something like that, my first thought is “Well, who the h@ll are you?” I don’t want to decide it for anyone else, either.

  9. BillyJoe says

    I use BillyJoe on all forums in which I comment and have done so for over 12 years. I had no problems at all until just over six months ago when someone tried for three weeks to discover my real name issuing veiled threats to me, my wife, and a female employee and hounding me for every comment I made. I am glad I have remained anonymous.

  10. BillyJoe says

    “there are some things an anonymous person should not do, such as make personal attacks on people or spread rumors about them or bring their personal lives into the equation. Such actions are bad in general but doing so behind a shield of anonymity is cowardly and inexcusable.”

    I was the victim of an anonymous person who did just that.
    He was also guilty of frequently changing his user name and I identified at least four aliases on the particular blog he frequented over a period of about six months. The topic was always evolution and how, in his opinion, the modern synthesis was dead and was about to be replaced by a form of teleological evolution. He was unhappy about me exposing those views.

  11. says

    For those of us with government jobs, or just employers that monitor their employees online presence, that would lead to a complete silencing of ourselves online.

    As much as the unnecessarily hostile attitude of people online bothers me, I’d prefer that to silencing myself entirely for fear I might let slip an opinion that gets me in trouble with some group of people that don’t care for a public employee disagreeing with policy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *