As J.S. Mill and many others have argued, the freedom of expression is a fundamental liberty. As such, it would be reasonable for proponents of crisis pregnancy centers to make use of it. As noted in my previous essays, crisis pregnancy centers purport to offer an alternative to abortion—though they seem to routinely engage in deception rather than honest persuasion. This leads to some interesting moral questions about the freedom of expression.
To get the obvious out of the way, those who work for crisis pregnancy centers have the moral right to express their views on abortion. They also have the moral right to try to persuade others to accept their views and to talk women out of having abortions. After all, a key part of the freedom of expression is the freedom to engage with others who are willing to listen to argue for one’s views or persuade others to accept them. As such, the freedom of expression of these centers (which is just shorthand for the freedom of expression of the people who work for them) is not in dispute. However, there are some matters that are not quite as obvious.
One concern, which was addressed in my previous essay, is the ethics of deceit. While people do have the right to express their views, there is not a moral right to engage in willful deception—the freedom of expression is not a ticket to lie. As I have argued elsewhere, a person can be in error and yet not be lying: lying requires that the person knows they are engaging in an untruth and that they have the right (or, rather, wrong) sort of intention. So, if the folks at the centers really believe the factual untruths they tell women, then they are not lying. However, this does not get them off the moral hook completely—there is also an ethics of epistemology (the theory of knowledge). Just as there is a moral obligation, as per Aquinas, to consider one’s actions before acting, there is also an obligation to confirm one’s beliefs before trying to get others to accept them. The seriousness of this obligation, as with actions, is in proportion to the seriousness of the effects of the belief. So, not being careful about unimportant claims is not a big deal but being careless about claims about birth control’s efficacy or the medical effects of abortion would be morally unacceptable. As with any liberty, there are also associate responsibilities and due diligence and honesty about the claims one makes are part of these responsibilities. That is, freedom of expression is not freedom from truth and research.
A second concern is the matter of values. While people do not have a right to their own facts, they do have the right to their own values (and the responsibility of the consequences of those values). While some folks embrace the self-defeating notion that relativity of values requires tolerance (it self-defeats because claiming tolerance as an objective value contradicts relativism), it would beg the question to assume that values are objective (or subjective). Even if values are objective (that is, some get things right and some get things wrong), there is still the obvious problem of sorting out which values are right. Because of this, it is rather more difficult to show that someone has made an error of values—that they have the wrong values. This, obviously enough, allows of some clear exceptions: those who advocate things like rape and genocide have indisputably gotten things objectively wrong. However, there is a vast territory in dispute and this legitimate dispute helps warrant the freedom of expression: since we do not know what is right in many cases, it would be both foolish and wrong to silence people with differing views.
While the various sides in abortion tend to believe they have the objective truth of the matter; the broad topic of abortion is morally complicated and an area of reasonable moral dispute. Those who think they have the right answer still have an excellent reason to accept this, if only on pragmatic grounds: if they are winning now, they might be on the outs tomorrow and hence need the freedom to make their case. If they are on the outs now, they obviously want the freedom to make their case now. As such, the center folks have the right to present their values as do those who disagree with them.
The final concern I will address is the matter of compelled listening. While there have been some interesting legal cases involving compelled speech, there is also the interesting moral matter of compelled consumption of expression. The easy and obvious view on this matter is that people have no right to expect others to listen to them and they do not, with some notable exceptions, have the right to harass people under the guise of free expression. To use the obvious analogy, you have the right to swing a knife around as much as you wish—as long as you are not slashing away at other people. Likewise, you can express yourself however you wish, provided that the expression is not aimed at harassing, coercing or harming others. I will admit the obvious problem of sorting out what counts as harassment, coercion and harm and note that this is a problem that can be solved by considering specific types of cases and also by developing general guidelines. For example, college students have no legitimate grounds to claim that a speaker who holds a view they dislike is automatically harming them. As another example, a student who is shouting vitriol and drowning out a speaker they disagree with is both violating the speaker’s right to free expression and endeavoring to compel others to listen to them over the speaker, thus they are in the process of trying to violate two distinct rights.
Returning to the centers, they do have every right to try to persuade, but the tactics that are coercive, deceptive or harassing are not protected by the freedom of expression. While they do have the right to express their views, they do not have the right to trick, harass or coerce others into listening or accepting their views. Naturally, the general principles at work here apply generally, especially to the freedoms of people I disagree with.