In the margins of the most recent case of political violence against an abortion doctor in the U.S., some people claimed that the media was in part to blame. The doctor in question was indeed publicly vilified on many occasions, and during many years, by certain conservative and pro-life pundits, on television and elsewhere. Especially Fox’s Bill O’Reilly was targeted as having some responsibility. His frequent outbursts against the doctor may have incited the attacker to eventually commit murder. Singling out this one doctor may have made him into an icon of abortion, and putting him squarely in the public eye may have made him the focus of a movement with a history of violence.
Of course, there’s nothing new to discussions about speech that openly calls for violent acts against political, religious or ideological opponents. For example, it was claimed that the infamous Muhammad Cartoons were directly responsible for violent acts against Muslims and/or violent reactions by Muslims. Another example is Radio Mille Collines, the Rwandan radio allegedly responsible for calling on Hutus to go out and murder Tutsi. Part of the debate around hate speech has to do with speech that is perceived to be incitement to violence.
I generally believe that some circumstances allow for limitations of the right to free speech, although I also believe that this right is of such importance that limitations must be exceptional and carefully considered. I invite you to read my general argument here. Basically, for me this is a problem of contradictory human rights, and of balancing rights so as to avoid the greater harm. In the case I’m discussing in this post, the right to free speech has to be balanced against the right to life and physical security of the people who are the targets of speech (e.g. abortion doctors and others).
The important thing to consider, in my view, is the causal relationship between speech which calls for violence, and the actual subsequent violence itself. Without such a causal relationship, the argument in favor of limitations can’t get anywhere. However, such causal relationships never easy to establish. How do we know to what extent a perpetrator of a violent act was influenced by others calling upon him to act? And that this influence was the main and overriding cause of his actions? In some cases, this causal relationship may be more convincing than in other cases. Mille Collines is probably easier to label as an accomplice in crime than Bill O’Reilly, whatever you think of the content and the style of O’Reilly’s rants. But even in the most obvious cases there is a very large grey area. Human motivation is very complex, influenced by many different things, some of which can go back very far in the past.
However, it’s one thing to determine, after the fact, that someone who said something was partly responsible for acts of violence committed by others. It’s quite another thing to use this responsibility as a justification for limiting speech and thereby preventing future acts of violence. Even if we can, beyond some measure of doubt, agree that there is a causal link between certain violent words and violent acts, this is always and necessarily after the fact, and without much use for the future.
Human affairs are unpredictable. They aren’t in any way like the laws of gravity or the laws determining the movements of objects in space. Previous causal relationships in human affairs can seldom if ever be distilled into laws of behavior. Even if we agree that there was a causal link between certain violent words and violent acts which we observed in the past (and that’s already quite difficult, given the numerous possible causes of human behavior and the difficulty of separating them from each other), this in no way justifies preventive anti-speech measures. Using previous causal relationships between speech and acts as precedents in order to limit similar speech which we feel can produce similar acts, means, in fact, assuming a causal relationship between speech and acts that haven’t even happened yet. And this is, evidently, even more difficult than determining causal relationships between speech and acts which have happened.
If we return to our example, this means that we would limit what O’Reilly can say in the future about abortion doctors. First we assume that Dr. Tiller, the doctor whose murder started this discussion, was murdered in part at least because of what O’Reilly said, and then we assume that if O’Reilly continues to say similar things about other doctors that these too will be murdered. That’s two very tentative assumptions.
I’m personally convinced that incitement to violence can indeed make violence more likely, that free speech can be one of the causes (but never the only cause) of violent acts, and that those who speak or write in public have to take this risk into consideration if they want to live responsible lives. However, I’m not (yet) convinced that it’s possible to find a way to limit freedom of speech so that we can avoid violent consequences, and without doing more harm than we (hope to) prevent. I don’t see how a law limiting incendiary speech can do justice to the crucial differences between cases. Such a law would most likely be overkill and, in addition, create a chilling effect. However, this shouldn’t stop us from calling on all public figures to cut out the hate. Hate and vilification boost the ratings, but they never do any good.