Why Do We Need Human Rights? (38): Different Justifications for Different Types of Free Speech

There are different types of speech, and therefore also different types of free speech. The point I want to make here is that different types of free speech require different justifications. It’s a common error to reject some kinds of free speech because they seem unacceptable from the point of view of justificatory theories that are useful only for other types of free speech.

What does that mean, different types of speech? We can have different goals when we speak: we can try to persuade, to signal our allegiance or identity, to harm, to ostracize, to insult, to express emotions, to promise or to enter into a contract, to state facts, to name something, to order someone, etc.

Each purpose of speech requires a separate justification of free speech, and some purposes may be very hard to justify at all, in which case a limit on freedom of speech may be necessary. However, much talk about limits springs from a logical error. It’s important not to try to use a justification for one type of free speech in order to examine the justification of another type. This may result in the unwarranted conclusion that some type of free speech is not justifiable and that it can therefore be limited, whereas in reality we just use the wrong justification.

Take one type of speech: persuasion. Free persuasion is usually justified on the basis of the marketplace of ideas. In a nutshell: people should be allowed to try to persuade each other freely, because this process of free persuasion will improve the quality of opinions.

Now take another type of speech, namely emotive speech. Examples of emotive speech are “fuck you” (expressing rejection or disgust), “fuck” (expressing disappointment), “shit”, “motherfucker” etc. Such expletives, and emotive speech in general, are often viewed as completely lacking in merit and therefore unworthy of protection. US First Amendment jurisprudence is a case in point. The Supreme Court labels a lot of emotive speech as no-value or low-value speech and has no problem with restrictions of it. (See also here). Speech lacks value, according to the Supreme Court, if it’s no essential part of the exposition of ideas and doesn’t bring us closer to the truth. Any slight benefit it may have is outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.

However, this means focussing on persuasion and the truth seeking purpose of speech, and using the justification of this type of speech in order to reject another type of speech. If, on the other hand, you believe that speech also has an emotional purpose, you would regard expletives as more valuable and more worthy of free speech protection.

The distinction between low or no-value speech on the one hand and high value speech on the other hand, whatever its merits (and those are not obvious), points us towards a further remark regarding the distinction between types of speech and between types of justifications. Those distinctions aren’t clear-cut: even people who express themselves merely because of signaling needs can be justified to do so because of the value of the marketplace of ideas. Although they don’t want to persuade, the fact that they merely express an opinion without arguing for it is valuable in the marketplace of ideas because it can convince others of the lack of real value of their opinions. Likewise, an order may indicate that persuasion has failed, and this in turn may indicate the relative weakness of an opinion.

More posts in this series are here.

Limiting Free Speech (46): Lies and False Statements of Fact

Should lies and false statements of fact be protected by free speech laws, or can the speech rights of those who intentionally lie be limited in some cases? The US Supreme Court believes the latter is true, somewhat surprisingly given the often quasi-absolutist nature of First Amendment jurisprudence in the US. In Gertz v. Robert Welch, the Court claimed that

there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact.

There are some obvious problems with this exception to free speech. First, it can’t work unless it’s possible to distinguish real lies from false statements of fact that are simple errors. This means it must be possible to determine someone’s intentions, and that’s always difficult. However, one could claim that a person’s speech rights can only be limited on account of lying when his or her intentions are clear.

That would save the exception, but it wouldn’t undo some of its harmful consequences. People who speak in good faith may still be afraid that their speech will unwittingly come across as false, without their good intentions being absolutely clear. Hence, they may fear that they will run afoul of the law, and limit their speech preemptively. The lies exception to freedom of speech has therefore a chilling effect, an effect which is enhanced by the fuzzy nature of the difference between facts and opinions.

Given these problems with the lies exception to free speech, how could we instead argue in favor of free speech protection for lies and knowingly false statements of fact?

One rather ironic way to do it is to appeal to the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas: free speech is necessary for the pursuit of truth (or, in a weaker form, for the improvement of the quality of our ideas). John Stuart Mill has the canonical quote:

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

As such, this doesn’t really justify the acceptance of expressions of lies. If we need lies to see the truth more clearly, you could also say that we need evil to see the good more clearly, and few I guess would accept the latter statement. However, if we interpret this quote liberally (pun intended), we may get somewhere. We could argue that someone’s lies can motivate others to search for, investigate and disseminate the truth. For example, I think it’s fair to say that holocaust deniers have done a lot for holocaust education. They have given teachers and researchers a hook.

Another reason why we wouldn’t want to prohibit lying, at least not across the board, is the fact that lies are often necessary for the protection of human rights. This is the case that’s made in jest in the cartoon on the right, and is also the origin of the rejection of Kant’s claim that we shouldn’t lie to the murderer inquiring about the location of his intended victim. (I have an older post about the usefulness of lying here).

Obviously, nothing said here implies that lying is generally beneficial or that it should be welcomed and protected whatever the circumstances. If lying becomes the norm, we will most likely lose our humanity. In the words of Montaigne, “we are men, and hold together, only by our word” and our civilization and systems of cooperation would come crashing down if we can’t generally trust each other. However, the general albeit not exceptionless moral good of telling the truth doesn’t translate into a right to be told the truth or a legal duty to tell the truth (and to shut up if we can’t). Mortality and human rights don’t completely overlap.

If lying were to become the normal habit, free speech would lose its meaning. We have free speech rights precisely because we want to share information, opinions and beliefs, and because we want to learn and pay attention to verbal assertions. There has to be some level of general trust that people speak their minds rather than the opposite. Otherwise it’s better if there’s no speech at all, and hence also no right to free speech. Hence, the free speech defense of lying has to be limited somewhere.

That is why, despite the fact that in general there shouldn’t be a right to be told the truth or a legal duty to tell the truth, we do want some cases in which there is such a right and such a duty. Lying is legitimately prohibited in the case of libel, of witnesses testifying under oath, of someone impersonating a doctor etc. But those are cases of different rights having to be balanced against each other: the free speech rights of the liars against the rights of those suffering harmful consequences when people lie (consequences such as bad medical treatment, miscarriages of justice etc.). The duty of government officials and elected politicians to tell the truth is based on the requirement of democratic transparency, and is therefore also a case of balancing rights: democracy is a human right, and democracy can’t function if there’s no transparency and if people in power don’t tell the truth about what they are doing.

Limiting Free Speech (45): Selling Violent Video Games to Children

A recent US Supreme Court ruling invalidated a California law that banned the sale of certain violent video games to children on the grounds that the law violated freedom of speech. The controversy is an old one, and goes roughly as follows. Proponents of laws banning violent media – especially the sale of violent media to children – point to different studies arguing that violence in media promotes violence in real life and that children in particular are at risk of becoming violent adults. Since people have a right to be protected against violence and children have a right not to suffer the psychological harm that purportedly comes from the consumption of violent games, we have here a case of rights conflicting with each other: on the one hand the free speech rights of the makers and sellers of games, and on the other hand the security rights of the potential victims of violent behavior provoked by the consumption of violent games, as well as the mental health rights of the consumers of those games. Hence, one of those rights should give way to the other rights.

Proponents of restrictions of free speech in this case argue that a prohibition of the sale of violent games to children is the best option since the speech value of a violent video game is small, and since producers of such games still have the freedom of “artistic expression” because they can still sell to adults. The cost of limiting free speech in this case is small compared to the gains in terms of physical security and psychological health. And there are precedents such as movie ratings.

The opponents of limitations on free speech can also point to studies showing the absence of an effect on real life violence or even the opposite effect – the so-called “pressure valve theory“. They can also use the slippery slope argument and claim that the sale of many classical works of fiction should then also be prohibited on the same grounds, since they also contain scenes of violence.

The US Supreme court sided with the opponents, unsurprisingly given the near absolutism of free speech protection in the US (only a couple of exceptions to free speech are recognized in US jurisprudence, and expression of violence isn’t one of them).

While I personally find US free speech jurisprudence difficult to accept and generally hypocritical – why can obscene material be censored but not violent material? – I think in this case the SCOTUS decision is probably right. The psychological evidence does not, as far as I can tell, clearly show an effect of media violence on real life violence, and even if there is a small effect, a general prohibition on violence in media probably goes too far, as does a general prohibition on the sale of media containing violence. Even a prohibition on the sale of such material to children is probably too much, even given the fact that children are more impressionable. Violence has many causes, and the “pressure valve” theory has some intuitive appeal (also in the case of pornography by the way). A rating system, allowing parents to do their job, is probably better.