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The Free Speech Excuse

The title of this article may be misleading.  To be clear: I am a big fan of the First Amendment.  Freedom of speech is possibly the most important individual human freedom.  Every person in the world should be allowed to freely express himself in “the marketplace of ideas,” except in extremely rare circumstances.

Yet many people confuse the point underlying freedom of speech.  Freedom of speech gives one the right to express him or herself.  However, it does not mean that one should express one’s self in any manner.  John has the right to say: “If you are a non-Christian, you are inferior;” yet Susan does not have to condone this speech simply because John has a right to make that statement.  Freedom of speech works both ways – Susan can judge John and make her judgment known by stating publicly that his statement is bigoted.  If John responds by saying that he should not be condemned because of freedom of speech – this is a false argument.  John has the right to say what he wants, but Susan and all others offended by his comment may judge him at will.

Unfortunately, the above example is not a far-fetched creation from my mind.  In California, a car dealership actually said the following in a radio advertisement (click to hear audio):

Did you know that there are people in this country who want prayer out of schools, “Under God” out of the Pledge, and “In God We Trust” to be taken off our money?

But did you know that 86% of Americans say they believe in God? Now, since we all know that 86 out of every 100 of us are Christians who believe in God, we at Kieffe & Sons Ford wonder why we don’t just tell the other 14% to sit down and shut up. I guess maybe I just offended 14% of the people who are listening to this message. Well, if that is the case, then I say that’s tough, this is America folks, it’s called free speech. And none of us at Kieffe & Sons Ford are afraid to speak up. Kieffe & Sons Ford on Sierra Highway in Mojave and Rosamond: if we don’t see you today, by the grace of God, we’ll be here tomorrow.

Under the “Kieffe & Sons Ford” interpretation of the First Amendment, it seems that (1) Freedom of speech only applies to the majority opinion; (2) if someone makes a statement that offends others, asserting that the statement is “free speech” means the statement should not be condemned.  I’m sure that’s exactly what the founding fathers were going for.  [Not So Silver Lining: Apparently Kieffe & Sons apologized after many complaints, then retracted their apology.]

The essential problem here, and in many usages of offensive speech, is the assumption that free speech does not go both ways.  But it does – anyone has a right to condemn another for saying something that is idiotic, offensive, or short-sighted.  Simply because something is within the right to free speech does not mean it must be condoned, or that a response to that speech is not considered free speech of its own.  Nor does the right to free speech only apply to a majoritarian view.  Any child who has studied Galileo and Copernicus, or Adolf Hitler’s Germany knows that a majority-only free speech rule would be unproductive and dangerous.

Perhaps everything I’ve written in this piece is completely obvious to everyone that will read it.  But there are many people out there that think they should have a “get out of jail free” card for making offensive speech simply because they have a right to make it.  You can exercise a right and be a horrible person at the same time.

[P.S. This reasoning also applies to how both major American political parties argue against “political correctness,” but in different ways and merely to favor themselves.  Maybe sometime soon I’ll write an article about that.]

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2 Comments for The Free Speech Excuse

Steve | June 7, 2008 at 12:05 pm

I’ve got two comments about this one. There was a recent situation at William and Mary where a guy was invited to speak (I don’t remember his name). He was invited by a group on campus that just likes to stir up controversy. This particular guy is controversial because he calls himself a “racial realist,” which is obviously a euphemism for “racist.” He supports racial profiling and thinks that white people are superior in intelligence and that there is some genetic difference between the races that causes the achievement gap. This guy is obviously mistaken in his views; he went to Yale, and I’m sure has been sheltered his whole life, not taking time to see what the conditions of poverty are really like and how race is still intertwined in its vicious cycle. I wonder how “successful” this guy would have been if his schools were ridiculously underfunded, his dad wasn’t in the picture, and he had to avoid drug dealers and getting shot everyday. Now, I don’t presume to understand race issues in our country, but my eyes are open enough to see that there are inequalities in opportunity for impoverished people, and I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to pretend I understood its complexity. Anyway, the point is that he was scheduled to come speak on campus and I got an e-mail from some (rightly) pissed off people on campus who wanted to block his visit. At the end of the e-mail it said something like “help protect diversity and stop ‘insert name’ from spreading bigotry on campus.” That seemed strange to me, according to my definition of diversity. True diversity would let this moron speak, even if his point of view is wrong and offensive. Opposing opinions to his should definitely be expressed, but the right thing to do is not to try and block him from expressing his. A truly diverse campus would allow all these opinions to be publicly expressed, but would also encourage the other side to be respectfully expressed as well.

I was going to make a second point, but the first is way too long already.

Author comment by George | June 8, 2008 at 5:56 pm

That’s interesting. I had not heard about this guy. But yeah, I agree. He should say what he wants to say, and people that disagree should speak up.

Racial realism is an interesting concept in the law and self-defense. A large component of whether someone has appropriately used self-defense is whether their response to another’s aggression conforms to what a “reasonable person” would do. Some people who have claimed self-defense after hurting or killing a minority who did not act very aggressively have claimed that their actions were justified because minorities are statistically more likely to be dangerous.

As far as I know, the reasonable racist defense does not work in an upfront sense as a matter of law (i.e. judge’s decision). But since you are often dealing with juries, who sometimes see a small white guy who shot a gigantic black guy, and subconsciously justifies the self-defense because the big black guy is really intimidating, they might acquit even though the black guy who was shot had no bad intentions and would not be intimidating but for his size and perhaps race in the eyes of the jury. I’m not condoning this, I wish people were as race-blind as possible, but because of the role of juries and the idea of the “reasonable person” in law, this kind of stuff slips through the cracks.




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