May 232011

Recent news from England has had me thinking a lot about free speech lately. In discussing this with other people online, it’s become apparent that Europeans generally have very different ideas about free speech than Americans. I hope to write more about free speech, including potentially how it relates to the news from abroad. But in the meantime I also wanted to capture and republish some of my better posts from my old blog, so I thought I’d do so with this post I did on the topic. The concern about the “arbiter,” as discussed below, continues to color my thoughts on the matter. Edit: see also this post here.

I was reading this article about free speech on college campuses, and in the section about Berkeley they discussed hate speech. From the article:

At the University of California at Berkeley, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement during the 1960s, administrators replaced the school’s broad ban on “fighting words” a year ago with a more narrow policy that prohibits harassing speech toward a specific person. Generally, hate speech is allowed against a group, but not an individual, said university counsel Maria Shanle….

It reminded me of a conversation I recently had with a German friend of mine. I would consider him (from what I know) to be of what’s generally referred to as “liberal” in terms of believing in personal freedoms, sane and rational socially-progressive policies, yet eschewing any sort of extremism, be it on the right or the left. In other words, our general attitudes toward public policy were similar.

We got to talking, though, and we realized that our respective cultural backgrounds affected our oppositional viewpoints on the subject of hate speech. My friend expressed appalled amazement that in the US hate mongers (the KKK, neo-nazis, etc.) could be legally allowed to spew their venom. “But these are lies!” he said. How could lies be protected speech?
For me, I see it less as an issue of permitting lies. In fact it has little to do with the contents of the speech at all. The problem with forbidding lies is deciding who gets to be the arbiter of what is a lie and what is the truth. Truth is often relative under the most innocent of circumstances, and history has shown that over-reaching governments frequently designate what is truth only to serve their own power-grabbing ends.

What my friend couldn’t fathom was the legal tradition which understands that equation, which understands that there are bigger issues at stake than simply being exposed to lying. It’s a belief that no idea is too dangerous to be expressed; that the true danger comes from putting someone in power over deciding which ideas can be expressed at all.

 Posted by at 3:31 pm

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