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Thursday, February 9, 2006

Free Speech: What Is A Right?

The controversy over the Muhammad cartoons continues to boil, likely a mere focal point triggering many existing grievances. Now, after the withdraw of diplomats, trade restrictions, and economically impacting boycotts, the pressure is on. It is at times like this that free nations must "put up or shut up" concerning their values and their rights. It is also at times like this that the true defenders of liberty are separated from the posers.

This is why we are beginning to see various public figures expressing "yeah but..." types of statements on free speech. I recently heard such diverse public figures as President Bush, U.N. Secretary Kofi Annan, and even Pat Buchanan all defending freedom of speech from one side of their mouth with wishy-washy moderation on that right from the other.

The common point has been something along the lines of "we have a right to free speech, but we also have a responsibility". This is a very clever statement because it appears at first glance to be the traditional juxtaposition of rights and responsibilities we hear about all the time; a juxtaposition that is generally correct and reasonable. However, in this case, the logic of this position is flawed.

While it's true that we have rights and those are balanced by responsibilities, it is not up to any particular official to just declare which responsibilities are the partner to a particular right. If so, then any right can be diminished simply by countering it with added "responsibilities". There is already a commonly accepted reasoning which pairs up particular responsibilities to the right of free speech and it is this:

A person should be able to say, think, publish, and draw anything they like provided that...

1) They are not spreading lies about matters of fact concerning someone.
2) They are not attempting to defraud people.
3) They are not directly and specifically inciting illegal acts.
4) They are within reasonable age-related restrictions in certain venues.

Number 3 is perhaps the most relevant here, but the incitement should have to be direct and specific. For example, "Hear Ye Hear Ye! Let us gather today in the town square to assault the police station!" or "All people of race x should be killed!"

According to any rational or reasonable approach to this issue, there should be no requirement whatsoever that the speech not offend others, even if those offended may choose to be disruptive, and even if that disruption may be global or extreme. In other words, that requirement is simply not part of the "responsibility" that is meant to balance the right of free speech, and certainly there is no moral responsibility to refrain from commentaries of opinion or of religious commentary, or of satire. Indeed, these are the core reasons for having a right to free speech to begin with.

The problem with thinking of such behavior as being irresponsible, is that it contradicts the older (and more sane) perspective on responsibility under which these rights were dreamed of. By such reckoning, each and every human being is responsible for his or her actions. If Bob does something within his rights that makes Kim angry and Kim blows up a building, it is not appropriate to simply talk about Bob's act as though it lead to a chain of events which resulted in the building being destroyed.

This 'chain of events' reasoning can only make sense if there are no other 'decision-making entities' located along that chain. Therefore, it is not Bob's fault that the building was destroyed, it was Kim's because Kim has the power to make her own decisions and must be responsible for them.

Of course, co-conspirators can result in multiple decision-makers in the chain being held responsible simultaneously, but certainly not others who are merely responded to and who are acting within their rights.

But sometimes what happens is that the most recent decision-maker in the chain of events (who should be the one held responsible for the result) is difficult to find or reach, or difficult to hold responsible; either for political, geographic, economic, or other reasons. When this happens, officials or others who are feeling pressured to act may often seek to shift responsibility past that responsible link in the chain, back to earlier decision-makers who are easier to hold responsible.

What's worse is that it could be literally any decision-maker in the chain of events, no matter how far back and no matter how many other difficult-to-reach decision-makers are overlooked. Once you essentially absolve the direct decision-maker of responsibility by treating them like a non-sentient effect rather than an agent with free will, the choice on which decision-maker bears responsibility for the final event becomes a purely political and arbitrary one. Therefore, the political or logistical or emotional expediency of this move does not make it any less flawed and immoral.

In this particular case, it is easier for officials to blame publishers and even perhaps eventually attempt to curtail their activities through pressures or laws because they are operating under local western governments. It is certainly easier to reach them than, say, a group of protesting Muslim extremists in the Gaza strip or Afghanistan who are chanting Osama Bin Laden's name and calling for the death of cartoonists.

But there is a very real danger in taking that 'easy way out' in this case. For, if we submit to the logic that the publishers bare some responsibility to curtail their expression out of the fear that extremists may riot or attack, then we are allowing ourselves to be put under de facto Sharia Law. It would mean that any group in the world can remove our rights at any time by gaining a reputation for violence, as if it were an automatic response. At that point, people stop thinking of them as a decision-maker and the blame is shifted to the holder of that right, who is expected to 'be responsible' by not exercising it.

It is very tempting for officials to seek to appease such extremists out of fear of violence. This appeasement may take the form of suggesting an absurd and vulgar 'balance' between publisher and terrorist where the terrorist is expected not to attack if the publisher takes on the "responsibility" not to publish things that upset people too much.

But there can be no 'balance' of this sort. The right to freedom of expression, aside from libel, fraud, attempts to actively coordinate crimes, and reasonable parameters for age-sensitive material in certain venues, must be maintained. If the publisher has any responsibility, it is a responsibility to publish exactly what they wish to communicate as a private press, and without self censorship or supporting the censorship of others. On the other hand, it is the offended party who has the even more important responsibility not to cross the line from offense to acts of violence, but instead to simply respond with his/her own free speech. This is the very basis of being able to have a civilized society.

This, like all of our most sacred and basic human rights, must be maintained even in the face of violence and death. We have lost lives for the sake of liberty before and should not be deluded that we may have to again in the future. I have little doubt as to the will of individuals to fight for their own rights. Unfortunately, I also suspect that when international corporations and government leaders are looking at the possibility of lost revenues, profits, or assets - through boycotts, trade restrictions, or attacks - they will see little incentive in backing those freedom fighters. In fact, they may even work against them if they can cut a deal with the devil (however informal) to diminish our rights for a saved buck.


  1. To me it just seems like there was possibly an inadvertent lack of understanding (and certainly lack of respect) on the part of the publishers with the 'offensive' cartoons, but also a fairly unreasonable overreaction from those Muslims who crossed the line in a different way in response to them. Probably ten years ago no one would've thought much about it, but these days anything that appears inflammatory is made highly visible... which seems rather silly, but it's a mark of the times we live in, unfortunately. Either we need a little more tolerance (on BOTH sides), or people need to just let up on all this religious hypersensitivity--especially since it's so obviously part of what's been ailing the world so sorely since 9-11. Reason seems to have flown out the window lately....

  2. Very true friend; and quite the understatement :)