While I accept the right to free speech, I also accept that it (like all rights) has moral limits. These moral limits can be used to justify legal limits, but such matters are settled by the courts rather than philosophers. While it is reasonable to believe that there are limits to free speech, it is equally reasonable to believe that these limits can be debated. Unfortunately, the debate is often distorted with emotions and bad reasoning.
As should be expected, many people dislike and even hate white supremacists, even more so as the supremacists become more Nazi like. Because of this strong emotional response, people often think that white supremacists should be silenced. However, how one feels about a speaker is not a good guide to whether the speaker should be allowed to speak. This is because, obviously enough, feelings are not reasons and the strength of a feeling is no measure of its correctness. That is, just because I really hate something does not mean it is bad. People do, of course, “reason” in this manner and “infer” that what they like is good because they like it and what they dislike is bad because they dislike it. As such, when considering white supremacists and free speech, it is important to approach the matter with reasons rather than feelings. This is not to say that feelings cannot be appropriate (one should dislike white supremacy), but to say that one cannot infer the correctness of a view from how one feels about it. A moral position should shape our emotions rather than our emotions determining our moral positions.
As with many debates over rights, the debate over free speech is often distorted by the slippery slope fallacy. The slippery slope is a fallacy in which a person asserts that some event must inevitably follow from another without any argument for the inevitability of the event in question. In most cases, there are a series of steps or gradations between one event and the one in question and no reason is given as to why the intervening steps or gradations will simply be bypassed. This “argument” has the following form:
- Event X has occurred (or will or might occur).
- Therefore event Y will inevitably happen.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because there is no reason to believe that one event must inevitably follow from another without an argument for such a claim. This is especially clear in cases in which there are a considerable number of steps or gradations between one event and another.
In the case of free speech, the usual slippery slope argument is to claim that if the free speech of some person or group is restricted, then everyone’s free speech will be in danger. For example, someone might claim that if white supremacists are not allowed to speak, uninvited, on a college campus then soon everyone with unpopular views will be silenced. If a case can be made showing how this will plausibly play out, then there would be no fallacy—but that is rarely done.
The slippery slope fallacy gets most of its power from psychological factors, typically involving fear. The idea is that the person targeted by the slippery slope is supposed to be afraid of the bad consequence that is alleged to follow and this is intended to blight their reason and get them to accept the fallacy as reasonable. The slippery slope fallacy also gets some of its power from the fact that there can be good reasoning that resembles the fallacy. Specifically, a causal argument that shows that the slope is slippery by making the causal link between one event and the consequences.
In the case of free speech, a case can be made that argues from the restriction of the free speech of white supremacists to restrictions on all unpopular groups and then on to everyone. While this would avoid the slippery slope fallacy, there would still be the question of whether the argument’s premises are true and how strong the argument is. To use an analogy, someone could argue that sex with minors (statutory rape) should not be banned because this is the first step towards banning all sex. While the steps could be laid out, it is rather evident that the slide can be stopped: adults can be banned from having sex with minors without banning all sex. Likewise, white supremacists can be restricted without this sliding to other groups.
In many cases, people also make use of another fallacy, the line drawing fallacy, in trying to argue that one thing will follow from another. The line drawing fallacy occurs when it is claimed that unless a precise line can be drawn between X and Y, then no distinction can be made between them. In the case of white supremacists, the argument would go that there is no clear line between white supremacists and other unpopular groups, so there would be no way to distinguish them. As such, if white supremacists were restricted, then these other groups would be restricted. While it can be challenging to make such distinctions and there will be problems, it is clearly possible to make such distinctions. Going back to the sex example, the transition between a child and an adult is imprecise. However, it is clearly possible to make such distinctions and make then part of law. As such, white supremacist groups can be distinguished from other groups, though there would be considerable debate about where the lines would be drawn.
While the focus has been on white supremacist groups, the same principles would apply to analogous groups. So, for example, black supremacist groups who advocated ethnic cleansing and such should also be subject to the same restriction as white supremacist groups.
In closing, it must be noted that I do not favor restricting people who advance unpopular, false or morally wrong views about “races” when they do so in the context of an actual discussion and are not engaged in presenting a threat to others. This, of course, goes back to the principle of harm discussed in a previous essay.