Free speech under attack

Jonathan Turley has a good article about how free speech is again under attack, this time wearing the guise of promoting tolerance and civility.

To put it simply, Western nations appear to have fallen out of love with free speech and are criminalizing more and more kinds of speech through the passage of laws banning hate speech, blasphemy and discriminatory language. Ironically, these laws are defended as fighting for tolerance and pluralism.

Western countries are on a slippery slope where more and more speech is cited by citizens as insulting and thus criminal.

Where governments once punished to achieve obedience, they now punish to achieve tolerance.

The best way to fight speech that is hateful is not by suppressing it but by more speech opposing it.


  1. Sheesh says

    So, what’s the point here? Hate crime laws are unconstitutional? Denialism with regard to the harm caused by some forms of speech? (Don’t prevent people from hanging empty nooses in front yards, stand around and denounce it after the fact. Harm happens! Get used to it! Preventing harm emboldens the nanny-state! (The slippery slope argument: I shouldn’t have to point out how fucking stupid that is.) Libertarians make this bullshit argument about all kinds of preventive force, we’ve even seen it in FTB threads were a couple went so far as to admit that preventing rape is a “tricky” “unsolved problem” in Libertopia. Some of these guys will insist ‘conspiracy to commit’ laws aren’t constitutional either: free association! free speech!)

    Anyhow… If that’s not the case, if you are willing to accept that the powerful can harm the powerless with certain expressions, that there can be non-arbitrary regulations on free speech that do more good than harm, then your maxim sounds a little bit different: The best way to fight [harm of people] is not by [preventing harm] but by more [expressions denouncing harm]. Hey, that doesn’t sound like a winning strategy, see, people are still harmed, but maybe the harmful persons feel bad about it and stop harming people one day. Victory!

    It’s a pretty easy position to have when bigots aren’t trying to harm you with their expressions. Consequences matter.

  2. Sheesh says

    Wait, I’ve had an epiphany. “The best way to fight speech that is hateful is not by suppressing it but by more speech opposing it” can be moral if we accept that locking up bigots (or some other mechanism of shunning) is just the people’s expression of opposing harmful speech by way of our sovereign government. You know, when we the people lock some bigot away, we’re just taking away his megaphone. Smirk. He can rail away against minority classes with his buddies in prison where his impact on society is minimal.

    Driving lgbt kids to suicide or hounding atheists or black folks out of town is not the kind of expression I’m interested in protecting, since the stakes are so high. Standing around yelling ‘stop being a bigot’ to anyone that will listen just isn’t effective enough at preventing death or exile. Consequences matter.

  3. Sheesh says

    For a real treat, read the comments on the Jonathan Turley blog. Sure nutpicking isn’t totally fair to the author, but man. 9/11 truth, Barack Hitler, Limbaugh apologetics, climate change denialism, absolute ignorance of the case in question and the “judge” involved.

    Check it out for a laugh.

  4. hyphenman says

    Shalom Sheesh,

    Setting aside the matter of children — whether children speaking to children or adults speaking to children — legally responsible adults in free society ought not to be protected from objectionable speech by statute because the greater harm of throttling objectionable speech to the society outweighs the harm to the individual (if you happen to be a science fiction reader, think Asimov’s First Law of Robotics vs. his Zeroth Law).

    As members of a free society we not only have a right to speak freely, but we have an obligation to do so and speak in opposition to objectionable speech. My favorite example occurred here in North East Ohio in the ’90s when the Klu Klux Klan sought and received a parade permit. Our societal response was to organize and line the streets of the march with people holding signs and verbally making sure that the marchers knew they had no support in our community: more speech is always the correct response to objectionable speech.



  5. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    I was bullied in high school. The bullies rarely touched me, instead they said hateful and hurtful things to me. According to Turley the bullies’ right to make my life miserable superseded my right not to be bullied.

    Hate speech is a real phenomena. It shows up in all sorts of ways and effects all kinds of people.

  6. Mano Singham says

    The problem, as I see it, is that the non-bigots are nowhere near as vocal as the bigots, although they are in the overwhelming majority. (If the non-bigots were in the minority, then the idea of locking up the bigots becomes unworkable anyway.)

    If we all spoke up against hateful speech wherever and whenever it occurred, it would go a long way towards neutralizing the bigots. We have made huge strides in making racist and misogynistic speech unwelcome without banning them. We still have some ways to go with homophobic speech. But we’ll get there.

  7. Sheesh says


    Perhaps you didn’t notice I was making a distinction between “objectionable” speech and harmful expression. Still denying hate crimes exist?

    Can you present a moral argument for permitting actual harm to actual people by harmful expression vs. the slippery slope claims of possible future harm to society as a whole?

    See, I keep saying consequences matter.

  8. Sheesh says

    But let’s be honest. I don’t expect you to defeat a secular Consequentialism or Meliorism in a blog post, so perhaps you could just instead give me an outline of the ethics you use to defend free speech absolutism.

  9. hyphenman says

    Shalom Sheesh,

    How can I make this more clear: outlawing people calling me a kike fixes nothing.



  10. hyphenman says

    Shalom ‘Tis Himself, OM,

    Minors and others who are not legally responsible adults are a different matter.

    Society has an obligation to protect those unable to protect themselves, but if you are a legally responsible adult, then you have not only the right, but the obligation to speak up when confronted with objectionable speech.



  11. Sheesh says

    Thanks for replying! (and letting me impose upon your time.)

    I certainly agree with your first paragraph. Non-bigots are presumably the majority.

    If we all spoke up against hateful speech wherever and whenever it occurred, it would go a long way towards neutralizing the bigots.

    Yes, but would it go far enough to prevent teen suicides or harmful discrimination and social oppression of minorities?

    We have made huge strides in making racist and misogynistic speech unwelcome without banning them.

    Minorities and women are protected classes in hate crime and discrimination laws (which include the existing hate speech provisions). So you know, we have made “unwelcome” (and by this I actually mean harmful) expressions illegal. We’ve “banned” hate crimes and to some extent hate speech (in the sense that we deter them with criminal sanctions) — harmful expressions.

    Where’s the inevitable tyranny? Are we in any real sense sliding down a slope to — as one of Turley’s commenters put it — “Barack Hitler”?

  12. Sheesh says

    So you know, that’s not harmful to you? That’s cool. Is it not harmful to all targets of discrimination and hate? Sure you wouldn’t kill yourself from bullying, I get that.

    You would consider yourself free if you were shunned by your community or forced into exile? Free to be oppressed I guess. But we don’t have a right to not be oppressed by society just by government, so it’s all good.

  13. Sheesh says

    Bullying ends when you turn 18? How do you protect yourself from harmful speech in a way that doesn’t also impinge your liberty?

    Obviously: no and you can’t.

    I guess just suck it up; it’s OK for the powerful to harm the weak, unless it’s government.

  14. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    I wish I lived in the wonderful world you do, where bullies magically become nice people as soon as the 18 year fairy touches them with a wand.

    Recently we saw 61 year old Rush Limbaugh bullying 30 year old Sandra Fluke. Apparently the wand touch didn’t work on Limbaugh.

  15. hyphenman says

    Shalom Sheesh,

    We both see the same problem — hateful people feeling free to harm others — we disagree on the solution.

    My solution involves active engagement and societal pressure.

    Your solution, as I understand it, involves passive avoidance and the reliance upon others in authority.

    Until we make the use of pejoratives unacceptable in our society, the words simply change from idiot to moron to retard to special needs to short bus and the core problem is never addressed.

    A solution is not absolute if all others fail to address the core problem or cause greater harm.



  16. hyphenman says

    Shalom ‘Tis Himself, OM,

    Bullying doesn’t end at 18, but the response does.

    If a bully taunts my 9-year-old son, I have a parental responsibility to deal with the parents of the bully and all other adults involved to ensure the bullying stops.

    If a bully taunts my 18-year-old son, my son should certainly expect my support (as well as that of society), but he should also know that as an adult he has become the primary individual responsible for dealing with the bully.

    If I have not ensured that when my son turns 18 that he is capable, as a legally responsible adult, of dealing with an adult bully, then I have greatly failed my son in my responsibilities as a parent.



  17. Sheesh says


    It seems to me like you’re softening on the absolutism of this claim, “In an open society, the only response to objectionable speech is more speech.” [my emphasis] You must agree that a claim like “A solution is not absolute if all others fail to address the core problem or cause greater harm” with out knowledge of “all others” and the degree of their “harm” is a useless agnosticism and not a defense of absolutism. E.g., “We don’t know, therefor claim!” isn’t a defense for gods. From this post I gather that we largely agree, absolutism isn’t defensible. (In this case I say it’s harmful or at least useless, you say it doesn’t exist.)

    You see, my solution also involves active engagement and societal pressure. (active engagement in the political process, and societal pressure in the form of collective action, in a democratic republic this is also known as “state power” by certain detractors.)

    Further, sanctions, deterrents and finally sequestration is certainly not passive avoidance (you’d agree, perhaps by calling it “state power”) and collective action is not a reliance upon others in authority in the understanding that in a democratic republic the voting population is the authority, some call this “popular sovereignty”.

    Now if we want to move from there that perhaps USA is a less than optimal constitutional democratic republic, perhaps we’ll agree again.

    (This is also what irks me about hardcore libertarians. They assume democracy but then they are surprised that a libertarian clean slate will by needs evolve into a liberal democracy in the common sense, ironically due to the same shittiness they base their conception of government upon.)

  18. Sheesh says

    What sort of culpability is involved for failing in your responsibilities as a parent? Do we just ignore the harm to your son, or protect him where you and he have failed? Instead does he sue you to make himself whole for the harm? These seem like a weird direction to take the argument.


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