Since I accept the classic rights of life, liberty and property I am reluctant to endorse restricting free speech. However, as I have argued before, liberties are not absolute. As I have also noted in other essays, I make use of Mill’s principle of harm as a general tool when assessing the limits of rights. So, in the case of free speech I favor the liberty of expression until it inflicts meaningful harm on others. Sorting out the level of meaningful harm is certainly problematic.
While some contend that offensive speech should be limited, that is unreasonable. After all, while people do not like being offended, it does not harm them in any meaningful way. To use an analogy, it is like getting a small spatter of muddy water on your pant legs from someone driving a bit too close to the sidewalk on a rainy day—not enjoyable, but nothing that causes lasting harm. While it can be rude to intentionally offend people, there are no grounds for compelling people to not offend.
Some people like the idea of placing limits on speech based on how the speech makes members of the audience feel—if someone feels threatened or is frightened by the expression, then it should be restricted. While this does have some appeal, there is the obvious problem that people have varying thresholds of fear and some of these can be quite unreasonable. To use an analogy, someone might find a person with facial piercing frightening and threatening, but this hardly warrants restricting facial piercings. It can, of course, be rude or mean to intentionally frighten people who are easily frightened, but the fact that some people are easily frightened does not warrant unreasonable restrictions.
The notion of hate speech has also been advanced as a standard for placing restrictions on speech. While this also has some appeal, there is the challenge of defining what counts as hate speech and what sort of hate speech crosses from being merely offensive or frightening to cross over to an actual imposition of harm that warrants restriction. While people do often want to silence people who express hatred of them, this does not seem to reach the level of meaningful harm that would warrant restrictions. The challenge, then, is sorting out some boundaries of free speech. Because of considerations about the line drawing fallacy, it would be unreasonable to demand that exact lines be drawn—at best what can be offered is some general boundaries. This does, of course, create a problem for those who are concerned with legal restrictions on expression—the laws, after all, need to be as clear and precise as possible. That said, fuzzy laws are routinely tolerated and accepted (such as laws relating to obscenity and pornography).
While some people do advocate a nearly absolute right of free speech and think that, for example, Nazis should have the freedom to march and do Nazi things in the middle of Holocaust memorials, it is worth teasing out intuitions about free expression. I will start with an easy, albeit horrifying, example.
Suppose a group formed dedicated to the theory that raping infants is correct behavior and they wanted to march through the streets advocating this activity. Obviously enough, people would point out that the activity they are advocating is a crime (and morally horrible). Imagine that the spokesman for the group insisted that they were just advancing an idea and were not, in fact, engaging in any actual rape. Just like the Nazis who claim a right to free speech because they are just presenting their views and not actually engaged in acting in accord with them (by murdering Jews, for example). The raises the question of whether things that would be morally horrible (and illegal) to do should be protected by free speech rights when they are merely defended or advocated.
As another example, consider whether American representatives of groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS should be allowed to peacefully march the streets of the United States while advocating their beliefs in speech. At this point, some readers are thinking the obvious: these are foreign terrorist groups and people can be arrested for belonging to them or supporting them. But, the issue at hand is not the legality of such groups, but whether their speech should be restricted on moral grounds because they are evil. If American Al Qaeda and ISIS advocates agreed to be as peaceful in their marches as American Nazis, would they be morally entitled to the same free speech rights? After all, Nazi ideology and Al Qaeda ideology are both foreign ideologies committed to the destruction of the United States and both groups have made war on America and murdered Americans. I am, of course, aware of the legal issues regarding Nazis and Al Qaeda—but, once again, this is a question of ethics.
As a final example, consider an imaginary group: Ameriqaeda. This group is composed of Americans that advocate Islamic supremacy, peaceful imposition of Sharia law and the peaceful religious cleansing of Christians from the United States. The group claims it has no affiliation with terrorist groups, although violent people seem oddly drawn to their events and sometimes kill a Christian or two. Should this group have the freedom to express its views and march? Would Fox News and Trump rush to defend their free speech rights and assure us that there are good people on both sides? Or would such a group cross a moral line that white supremacists that advocate white supremacy and peaceful ethnic cleansing do not cross? Or would it merely be a prejudice against Islam in general that would lead people to forbid Ameriqaeda to march with the same freedom as white supremacists?
I think it would be a good thing if American Al Qaeda and ISIS advocates spoke out. I would love to see a debate between these folks and more moderate Muslims about who follows the “true” Islam.
“As a final example, consider an imaginary group: Ameriqaeda. This group is composed of Americans that advocate Islamic supremacy, peaceful imposition of Sharia law and the peaceful religious cleansing of Christians from the United States.”
Mike, you do realize that this is what even moderate Muslims, believe, right?
Joe Postove says
What is your source for that TJB?
In Islam, inviting people to the religion is a meritorious activity. The Qur’an states “Let there be no compulsion in the religion: Surely the Right Path is clearly distinct from the crooked path.” (Al-Baqarah, 2:256) which is taken by Muslim scholars to mean that force is not to be used to convert someone to Islam. Muslims consider inviting others to Islam to be the mission originally carried out by the Prophets of Allah and is now a collective duty of Muslims. In the Qur’an Allah states: “Invite to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them (non-believers) in ways that are best and most gracious; (leave judging them) for your Creator knows best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance.” (An-Nahl: 125)
The Dhimmi is the Arabic term that refers to its non-Islamic embracing population that has the ignominious dishonor of living in Islamic conquered lands. In a similar manner to the Jewish reference to a non-Jew as being a goy, so too the term dhimmi refers to non-Muslims. However unlike the Jewish term, goy, and much more important, the dhimmi is a distinctly subjugated second class non-citizen almost slave who is subjected to dictatorial deprivation of any legal and human rights since he is a non-Muslim permanent resident in a Muslim state.
Asking a Muslim to stop believing in Sharia is like asking her to stop practicing her religion. It is a blatant attack on religious liberty.
Much like Jewish Halakhah, which can influence everything from a person’s diet to the clothes they wear, Sharia is a set of laws that covers all aspects of a Muslim’s life, imbuing even mundane acts with a touch of divine significance.
According to the American Muslim scholar Imam Suhaib Webb, there are five main things that Sharia law aims to preserve: Life, learning, family, property, and honor. From these main goals come laws about things like marriage, eating, worship, financial transactions, and many other essential aspects of living in a community.
So Muslims want everybody to convert to Islam; historically, non-Muslims in Muslim societies are treated as second class citizens; believing in Sharia is part of the religion.
Take a close look at Indonesia, often called a moderate Muslim nation.
JAKARTA, Indonesia — An Indonesian court found the Christian governor of the country’s capital, Jakarta, guilty of blasphemy against Islam on Tuesday, sentencing him to two years in prison in a case widely seen as a test of religious tolerance and free speech.
The governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, was defeated last month by Anies Baswedan, a former minister of education and culture, in an election in which the blasphemy case, and religion, was a major issue.
Mr. Basuki began his sentence on Tuesday. Deputy Governor Djarot Saiful Hidayat is to serve as acting governor until October, when Mr. Anies takes office.
Blasphemy is a crime in Indonesia, a secular democracy with the world’s largest Muslim population. The sentence was harsher than what prosecutors had asked for; they had recommended two years’ probation on a lesser charge, which would have spared Mr. Basuki prison time.
I spent far too much time on the last post.
I’ll just ask this question: if you support banning people from advocating changes to laws, how are laws to be changed?
If Muslims, or “white supremacists” (however defined), or SJWs, or pro-life supporters, or weed-smokers, want to change the laws, let them all speak up and say their piece and face the counter arguments in public.