What Are Human Rights? (35): Freedom of Expression is Freedom of What Exactly?

Another way to frame the question in the title of this post is: what falls under the header of “expression”, and what not? Only if something is justifiably called expression can it enjoy the protection of the right to free expression. I’ll argue below that “expression” covers more actions than the ones we intuitively classify under that concept. Hence, freedom of expression protects more than we think it protects.

And yet, it’s not because something is expression that it automatically enjoys protection. Some actions which we readily classify as “expression” are not and should not be protected by freedom of speech. In other words, freedom of expression covers more and at the same time less than we think.

The obvious type of action that is covered by the right to free speech, and the type that represents the large majority of expressive actions, is speaking and writing in day-to-day language. Such actions enjoy a prima facie protection by the right to free speech. Nothing special about that. However, the right also applies to other expressive actions, ones that do not involve speech or writing in ordinary language:

  • some non-linguistic means of expression, such as visual art
  • some forms of protest such as the burning of a draft card, a flag or a cross
  • pornography
  • the display of symbols (e.g. a swastika)
  • etc.

These types of expressive actions can also claim protection in certain circumstances.

So, some things which are not readily identified as speech are nevertheless considered as speech acts and receive some form of protection from the right to free speech.

On the other hand, some actions that are unmistakably speech – such as hate speech, incitement etc. – are often justifiably excluded from the protection of the right to free speech.

Free speech therefore covers at the same time more and less than a cursory examination would conclude. However, the broad definition of speech that expands speech beyond mere linguistic acts does create a problem. Non-linguistic expressive actions are hard to delineate. All actions can include an expressive component, and it’s often difficult to determine when an agent intended to convey a message through her actions. So the concept can become too broad, and we risk, as a result, that freedom of speech covers all actions and becomes indistinguishable from freedom tout court. That can’t be the purpose.

Notwithstanding this problem, it’s obvious that not all linguistic or non-linguistic expressive actions should enjoy protection by the right to free speech. Terrorism is certainly an expressive action, but no one would claim that it should be protected by freedom of speech.

Beside the “freedom of what?” question, there’s another interesting one: “freedom from what?” Usually, freedom of expression, like many other type of freedom, is believed to be primarily or exclusively a freedom from government interference with speech. While that’s an important dimension of freedom, it’s not the only one. Rights have a horizontal as well as a vertical dimension: citizens can also violate each others rights, and hence freedom of expression for example is also a freedom from interference by fellow-citizens. More on the dimensions of human rights is here. More on free speech here.

Limiting Free Speech (43): The Consequences of Hate Speech

Some of the consequences of hate speech are human rights violations; others are not. Only the former are good reasons to criminalize hate speech and carve out an exception to the right to free speech. Rights can only be limited for the sake of other rights or the rights of others (more here). Let’s go over the different possible consequences of hate speech and see whether or not they imply rights violations.

Hate speech lowers self-esteem in the targets. People who are repeatedly subjected to hateful remarks or jokes about their race, gender, sexual orientation etc. tend to develop feelings of inferiority, stress, fear and depression. Of course, there’s no right not to be depressed, fearful, stressed etc. Therefore, we can say that hate speech should be protected speech when its consequences are limited to these. These are harmful and brutal consequences, but not harmful or brutal enough to be rights violations. We should be concerned about them and try to do something, but this “something” doesn’t include limiting free speech rights. However, people who are extremely intimidated and stressed and who have a deeply negative view of themselves tend to isolate themselves. Isolation isn’t a human rights violation, but couldn’t we argue that willfully isolating people means violating some of their rights? Isolated people don’t speak, assemble, associate etc. In that case, we could argue for limits on the rights of hate mongers.

Hate speech often has even more extreme consequences. Targets of hate speech may feel compelled to leave their homes and move elsewhere, to quit their jobs, and to avoid certain parts of town and public areas. This is a direct violation of their freedom of movement, freedom of residence, right to work and possibly even their right to a certain standard of living. It’s obvious that the free speech rights of the haters should in such cases be deemed less important than the many rights of their victims.

Hate speech can also means invasion of privacy, for example in the case of repeated phone calls, hate mail, or stalking.

Violations of property rights are another possible consequence of hate speech. Hate speech sometimes means vandalism, graffiti (sometimes even inside the homes of the targets), cross burning in someone’s front lawn etc. These cases of hate speech already start to resemble hate crime.

The line between hate speech and hate crime is even thinner when speech is not just hateful but an incitement to violence. For example, hate speech can provoke race riots; it can help hate groups with an existing tendency toward violence to attract new recruits etc. (a larger group will feel more confident to engage in hate violence). And what if hate speech allows hate groups to gain control of (local) government? That would probably lead to discriminating policies and laws.

This overview of possible and actual consequences of hate speech should concern those of us who care about more human rights than just freedom of speech, and who know that different human rights aren’t always in harmony with each other. In some circumstances, some rights need to give way in order to protect other rights. That’s an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of the value pluralism inherent in the system of human rights.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (24): Political Rhetoric, Violence and Free Speech

My two cents about the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords:

  • The attack was obviously politically inspired, even though the shooter may have been insane. An insane act isn’t necessarily apolitical. There may or may not be a direct causal link between the attack and the “heated political rhetoric” that has come to characterize American politics and that often borders on incitement. (Compared to other western democracies, the political language is indeed extreme in the US). If there is such a link, it will be very hard to establish, given what we know about the psychology of the attacker.
  • In general, violent rhetoric can contribute to actual violence (see this paper for example). The case of the Rwanda genocide is well-known. And we don’t need to go and look at extremes in order to find cases of hate speech turning into hate crime. There are not a few pedophiles who have had there whereabouts shouted from the rooftops and who suffered the consequences. Given the omnipresence and ease-of-use of the media in developed societies, what is published and broadcast through these media may very well nurture or even provoke extremism and hate in society. It’s futile to deny this possibility.
  • This general conclusion does not warrant the automatic linking of a case of violence to instances of political rhetoric that seem to be a possible inspiration. In other words, it’s not because Sarah Palin was silly enough to publish a map with cross-hairs “targeting” Giffords (among others) in a purely political and non-violent way, that her actions caused the attack. Maybe these actions contributed, maybe not. Most likely we’ll never know. And even if they did contribute in driving a sick person over the edge – which is not impossible – then they are most likely only one element in a large set of causal factors, including the perpetrator’s education, medical care (or lack thereof), the ease with which he could acquire a gun etc. That large set doesn’t drown individual causes but it does diminish the importance of each (possible) cause. Human motivation and the determinants of human action are almost always highly complex. (Something which is too often forgotten in criminal sentencing).
  • Given the general possibility of speech resulting in violence, is that possibility a sufficient reason to limit our freedom of speech, even before the actual violence occurs? Yes, but only in very specific cases, namely those cases in which the link between speech and (possible) violence is clear. John Stuart Mill used the example of an excited mob assembled in front of the house of a corn dealer accused of starving the poor. Hate speech in such a setting is likely to lead to violence, while the exact same words printed in an obscure magazine are not. The words in the magazine should be protected by freedom of speech; the words of the mob leaders probably not.
  • Yet even when words should be left free by the law, morality requires of speakers that they consider the possible consequences of speech.
  • Are the events we witnessed recently of the same nature as the words of the mob leaders? And what about similar recent events? I don’t think so. Which means that the people concerned have not abused their freedom of speech.
  • Does that mean that they used their freedom in a good way? No, it doesn’t. Heated rhetoric is almost never the best way to talk, not even for the purposes of the speaker. It doesn’t tend to accomplish a lot or to further anyone’s interests (apart from the interest in getting attention). So those of us who insist on “turning it down a notch” have good reasons to do so. This insistence obviously doesn’t imply curtailment. It’s just a question, and it deals with form rather than content. People are generally too fast to claim their right to free speech when confronted with criticism of the way in which they use or abuse this right. Criticism of speech doesn’t automatically imply the will to prohibit speech, and freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from criticism. Quite the opposite.

More here and here.

Limiting Free Speech (39): From Hate Speech to Hate Crime, the Case of Rwanda

Although I take human rights, and especially freedom of expression, very seriously (I wouldn’t be writing this blog otherwise), I also believe that hate speech can produce hate crime. It’s a thin line between hateful words and hateful actions. Impressionable people can be led to violent crimes by hate speech. This is called incitement to violence. I do understand the problems with this justification of limits on freedom of speech: it can be abused by those who want to muzzle their opponents. If people react violently to criticism, ridicule or insults, then they may claim – wrongly in my view – that the responsibility for the violent acts lies with those making “incendiary remarks”. You can read my objections against this type of argument here.

Nevertheless, I think there are other cases in which hateful words can turn into hateful crimes. The classic example is Radio Mille Collines, the Rwandan hate radio that called for the extermination of the Tutsi ethnic minority population before and during the 1994 Rwanda Genocide (it infamously swept up the Hutu’s to start a “final war” to “exterminate the cockroaches”):

During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) broadcast anti-Tutsi propaganda and called for violence against Tutsis, which many experts believe significantly contributed to the violence. An interesting new job-market paper by David Yanagizawa seeks to determine the precise role that RTLM played in the genocide. Yanagizawa relies on “arguably exogenous variation in radio coverage generated by hills in the line-of-sight between radio transmitters and village” to determine the causal effects of RTLM. He finds that RTLM played a significant role in the genocide: full village radio coverage increased violence by 65 percent to 77 percent. The effects are larger in villages with a large Hutu majority and in villages without access to other information sources i.e. villages with lower literacy rates. In total, Yanagizawa calculates that the radio station’s broadcasts explain 45,000 deaths (or 9 percent of the total death toll). (source)

If this is correct, it’s difficult to maintain the doctrinal position that freedom of speech is always and absolutely beneficial and worthy of protection without exception. Unless of course you claim that freedom of speech is more important than the right to life. I refer to an older post on balancing different human rights.

Don’t get me wrong, freedom of speech is absolutely vital, for many different reasons (some as fundamental as thought itself, see here), and no regular reader of this blog can say that I’m ambivalent about it. But what I do object to is the school of thought that believes free speech is the uppermost value, trumping all others in all cases and all circumstances. Maybe this quote from Isaiah Berlin can help to get my point across:

I came to the conclusion that there is a plurality of ideals, as there is a plurality of cultures and of temperaments. I am not a relativist; I do not say “I like my coffee with milk and you like it without; I am in favor of kindness and you prefer concentration camps” — each of us with his own values, which cannot be overcome or integrated. This I believe to be false. But I do believe that there is a plurality of values which men can and do seek, and that these values differ. There is not an infinity of them: the number of human values, of values that I can pursue while maintaining my human semblance, my human character, is finite — let us say 74, or perhaps 122, or 26, but finite, whatever it may be. (source)

This description of Berlin’s value pluralism is from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

According to Berlin’s pluralism, genuine values are many, and may—and often do—come into conflict with one another. When two or more values clash, it does not mean that one or another has been misunderstood; nor can it be said, a priori, that any one value is always more important than another. Liberty can conflict with equality or with public order; mercy with justice; love with impartiality and fairness; social and moral commitment with the disinterested pursuit of truth or beauty; … knowledge with happiness; spontaneity and free-spiritedness with dependability and responsibility. Conflicts of values are “an intrinsic, irremovable part of human life”; the idea of total human fulfillment is a chimera. “These collisions of values are of the essence of what they are and what we are”; a world in which such conflicts are resolved is not the world we know or understand. … “we are faced with choices between ends equally ultimate, and claims equally absolute, the realisation of some of which must inevitably involve the sacrifice of others”.

Limiting Free Speech (38): Cheering on a Criminal

Can bystanders who cheer on a criminal invoke their right to free speech, or can the government prosecute them and hence limit their right to free speech? An infamous example is public rape, a particularly horrendous crime in which a man or group of men rapes a woman in a public space, for example a bar, while being loudly encouraged by a group of bystanders, most of whom will probably be sexually aroused by the spectacle. The movie “The Accused” offers a classic depiction of such a crime, and is based on a real-life public gang-rape.

The case of cheering bystanders and their right to free speech is similar, although not identical to some other cases that I discussed previously, such as hate speech, speech that teaches the methods of illegal activity, death threats, and incitement to violence. These cases are similar because it’s assumed that all these forms of speech can produce violence or can make violence more likely.

Eugene Volokh, normally very hesitant to allow restrictions on free speech, says that prosecution should be possible

on the grounds that the cheering tends to encourage the criminal and thus constitutes “abett[ing].” “An aider and abettor is one who acts with both knowledge of the perpetrator’s criminal purpose and the intent of encouraging or facilitating commission of the offense.” People v. Avila, 38 Cal. 4th 491, 564 (2006). (source)

In some circumstances, the bystanders are even strict accomplices in the sense that they aid the criminal in his or her actions: their cheering may make it impossible for others to intervene because they seal off the crime scene, or the cheering can include precise instructions. One can also imagine cases in which the criminals wouldn’t have acted if not for the cheering. But even if the bystanders are not strict accomplices in any of these senses, they are surely guilty of criminal failure to assist persons in need. Instead of cheering, they should have called the police. So, in all these cases, the bystanders help the crime occur, even if all they do is vaguely encourage someone. Hence they cannot claim that their right to free speech should protect them against criminal prosecution.

Limiting Free Speech (37): Incitement to Murder and Death Threats

Should a joke about killing the president be protected by the right to free speech and the First Amendment? Or a poll on Facebook asking if Obama should be assassinated? Or a rap song about “killing a cop”? Or do such things cross a line beyond which the government can intervene, can limit the freedom of speech of those involved, and can punish them for having committed a crime? I would say: it depends.

In US jurisdiction, the Brandenburg v. Ohio case stipulates that abstract advocacy of violence is protected speech under the First Amendment. However, it is equally acceptable, also according to Brandenburg v. Ohio, that speech which incites imminent, illegal conduct – including violence – may itself be made illegal:

The constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.

So, advocacy of violence can only be prohibited when there is clear incitement of an imminent violent act, as well as the likelihood that this incitement produces or helps to produce such an act.

In the specific case of death threats, the Supreme Court case is Watts v. United States (1969). There it says that only true threats aren’t constitutionally protected; mere hyperbole, humor or offensive methods of stating political opposition are protected. What is a “true threat? According to Virginia v. Black (2003),

a statement can’t be a punishable threat unless it’s made “with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death.” Thus, following Black, a statement is a punishable threat only if a reasonable listener would understand it as a threat of attack and the speaker intended that the listener get that impression. (source)

Personally, I wouldn’t place too much weight on the second clause in that last sentence (after the “and”). I think it’s sufficient that the listener gets the impression of a threat and that the threat produces reasonable fear, even when the person stating the threat didn’t really mean it and was just joking (hence no real “intent”). So a joke about a bomb while on an airplane shouldn’t be protected, while a joke on the radio about killing the president should be protected, because the president or anyone else would probably not take it very seriously. The context of the threat is important. Even when there is clear intent and therefore not just a joke, but no likelihood of the threat being carried out, I would also propose to protect freedom of expression. The main focus is on the reaction of the reasonable recipient and the risk to which he or she is exposed (this focus contains a subjective and a factual element: perception/reaction and factual risk).

Limiting Free Speech (31): Speech That Incites, and Teaches the Methods of, Illegal Activity

This is a follow-up from two previous posts on the same subject (here and here).

In Brandenburg v. Ohio, the Supreme Court held that abstract advocacy of lawlessness and violence is protected speech under the First Amendment. Even in a society based on laws, people should be free to express disagreement with the law and call on others to break the law (inflammatory speech).

I think that’s generally acceptable and fair. If someone believes that smoking dope shouldn’t be a crime, and carefully describes to his or her readers how to cultivate and use the drug, then he or she should be permitted to do so. The crime is drug use, not the description of or incitement to use drugs. The same is true for a more extreme example, such as the infamous book called “The Hit Man Manual” (see the Rice v. Paladin Enterprises case). Also, we don’t want to ban chemistry books because someone may use them to build a bomb.

However, it is equally acceptable, also according to Brandenburg v. Ohio, that speech which incites imminent, illegal conduct may itself be made illegal:

The constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action. Brandenburg v. Ohio

If speech intends to produce illegal actions, and if, as a result of this speech, the illegal actions are imminent and likely, then there is a reason to limit freedom of speech. In the words of Justice Black (who was, by the way, something of a first amendment absolutist):

It rarely has been suggested that the constitutional freedom for speech and press extends its immunity to speech or writing used as an integral part of conduct in violation of a valid criminal statute. We reject the contention now.

When speech acts contribute substantively to criminal acts, the speech acts are considered to be “aiding and abetting”.  The fact that “aiding and abetting” of an illegal act may be carried out through speech is no bar to its illegality. (source)

The justifications for free speech that apply to speakers do not reach communications that are simply means to get a crime successfully committed. K. Greenawalt in “Speech, Crime, and the Uses of Language”

Aiding and abetting a crime can be criminal in itself, even if it takes the form of the spoken or written word. The First Amendment doesn’t provide immunity from prosecution because someone uses speech or the printed word in encouraging and counseling others in the commission of a crime.

Volokh has given the following example:

A Virginia woman has been arrested for blogging about the members of a local drug task force. The charge is harassment of a police officer. She apparently posted on the blog one officer’s home address, as well as photos of all members of the task force, and a photo of one officer getting into his unmarked car in front of his home….

Photographing, writing about, and criticizing police officers, even by name, should of course be legal. But it’s a tougher call when the officers in question work undercover. Naming them, posting their photos, posting their addresses, are all pretty clearly efforts to intimidate them, and it isn’t difficult to see how doing so not only makes it more difficult for them to do their jobs, but may well endanger their lives….

When may speech be restricted because it provides others with information that may help them commit crimes? Here, the information may help people kill police officers, or at least conceal their crimes from police officers (once the undercover officers’ covers are blown). (source)

However, this doesn’t mean that all inflammatory speech or every publication and distribution of instructions on how to act illegally, can be suppressed and made illegal. The “Brandenbrug test” has to be successful first, which means that there has to be more than mere intent. There has to be incitement of an imminent lawless act, as well as the likelihood that this incitement produces or helps to produce such an act.

Terrorism and Human Rights (18): Right-Wing Terrorism in the U.S., and the Shared Responsibility of Conservative Media

Only days after the attack on Dr. Tiller, the U.S. is shocked by yet another terrorist attack by a right-wing extremist, this time at the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Some have questioned the role of the media in all this. It’s true that parts of the U.S. media, especially on the conservative side, are not characterized by nuanced analysis and balanced reporting. There’s a lot of hate speech, stereotyping and shouting on cable news, on the radio and on the internet. So it’s fair to say that there may be a risk that the media are fanning and nurturing extremism and hate in society, and that they may be responsible for pushing sick people over the edge. (See also here).

I personally regret the lack of quality in the media, and I do believe that journalists and pundits should be more careful in what they say and how they say it. But I also believe that critics of the media should be careful when deciding responsibilities and causal relationships. Society is complex, and people are driven by many factors. Still, most people are ultimately responsible for their own acts (I don’t know enough about the two cases at hand to conclude that the mental condition of the perpetrators at the time of the crime was such that they could be held criminally responsible).

We run the risk that these terrorist events will lead to calls for a more restrictive interpretation of the freedom of speech of the media. Let’s hope that this risk incites the media to question their behavior and to abandon the language of hate.

Limiting Free Speech (26): Incitement to Violence and Pro-Life Activism

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.