Limiting Free Speech (51): Speech That Intends to Get Someone Fired

What if someone tells an embarrassing or potentially harmful truth about someone else to his or her employer, with the intention of convincing the employer to fire this person? Are we allowed to limit the speech rights of the speaker in question (for example, by way of the imposition of a fine, the payment of damages to the person fired or an order to remove internet pages)? And does it matter if the speaker addresses only the employer or the public at large (perhaps in the former case we’re not really dealing with free speech)?

Take this example:

Appellant Derek Schramm is a parent of children enrolled in a Roman Catholic grade school in Minneapolis. Respondent Zachary Faricy is a teacher at the school. In November 2001, Schramm sent a letter to the school principal and the parish pastor informing them of his suspicion that Faricy “might be a homosexual.” (source)

Let’s assume that we’re not dealing here with incitement to commit illegal acts. Discrimination of homosexuals is often illegal, but many religious institutions are exempt from such a rule. (Whether or not that’s a good thing is another matter, briefly discussed here). Hence if silencing this particular speaker is indeed a warranted exception to free speech then it must be one that’s different from the established exception regarding speech that incites illegal activity.

Let’s also assume that we’re not dealing with libel. Perhaps the target in this particular case is indeed a homosexual and has therefore good reason to fear that his Catholic employer will fire him if this fact about him becomes known. Libel is usually defined as a false claim intended to harm someone’s image and reputation, and so that’s not what our example is about. The intended harm is dismissal of the teacher. Like incitement to commit illegal acts, libel is an established exception to free speech rights, and one that I also want to exclude from the current discussion. What I want to do here is see whether speech that intends to get someone fired and that is neither libel nor incitement to commit illegal acts, should always be protected.

Now, speech that incites employers to fire people does impose certain demonstrable harms: the target’s right to privacy is violated, as is his or her right to a decent standard of living (in the case in which the target may not find another job in the short term). So, a priori we could have an argument here in favor of prohibiting speech that incites employers to fire people. Normally, limits to free speech can be acceptable if they are necessary in order to avoid greater harm to other human rights.

However, if we want to allow limits on speech that incites employers to fire people, would we not also be forced to accept the prohibition of public protest aimed at getting a racist or sexist radio host fired? That seems to go very far. Maybe we can limit the free speech exception as follows: in the Catholic school case the speech was directed at a single person – the employer – whereas in the case of public protest the audience is much larger. Still, that’s not a very promising route. The inciter in the Catholic school case may drum up support among other parents or write to the local Catholic newspaper if a private letter to the employer doesn’t do the job.

It’s true that the nature of the audience and the circumstances in which speech occurs can make a difference – hate speech in an obscure periodical should not necessarily be forbidden, but hate speech in front of an excited mob about to attack someone is different. But the same difference doesn’t apply here I think.

In the case of speech that incites employers to fire people – whether it’s private speech or public speech – I would prefer not to impose limits on speech but rather change the law so that it is illegal to fire people for their beliefs, words or lifestyle. And yes, that may include revoking religious exemptions to employment discrimination. After all, how exactly does it harm someone’s religious freedom if his or her children are educated by a homosexual teacher?

More posts in this series are here.

Limiting Free Speech (47): Incitement to Commit Suicide

An interesting story in the press some time ago:

A former nurse from Faribault, Minn., was convicted of two felonies Tuesday when a judge ruled he had used “repeated and relentless” tactics during Internet chats that coaxed two people to kill themselves.

Rice County District Judge Thomas Neuville found that William Melchert-Dinkel, 48, “imminently incited” the suicides of Mark Drybrough of Coventry, England, and Nadia Kajouji of Ottawa, Ontario. Drybrough, 32, hanged himself in 2005, and Kajouji, 18, jumped into a frozen river in 2008.

In a 42-page ruling that found Melchert-Dinkel guilty of two counts of felony advising and encouraging suicide, Neuville wrote that it was particularly disturbing that Melchert-Dinkel, posing as a young, suicidal, female nurse, tried to persuade the victims to hang themselves while he watched via webcam….

Neuville, in rejecting the free-speech defense, noted that inciting people to commit suicide is considered “Lethal Advocacy,” which isn’t protected by the First Amendment because it goes against the government’s compelling interest in protecting the lives of vulnerable citizens. (source, source)

I guess that’s correct, even though the case doesn’t really fit with any of the commonly accepted exceptions to free speech rights. We’re not dealing here with incitement to murder or a death threat – standard exceptions to free speech, even in the U.S. And neither is it speech that incites illegal activity – another accepted exception. Suicide isn’t murder and isn’t illegal (anymore). Abstract and general advocacy of crime and violence is – or should be – protected speech, but not the advocacy or incitement of specific and imminent crime or violence if this advocacy or incitement helps to produce the crime or violence. If speech intends to produce specific illegal or violent actions, and if, as a result of this speech, these actions are imminent and likely, then we have a good reason to limit freedom of speech. Examples of such speech:

None of these forms of speech should be protected, and laws making them illegal are perfectly OK. On the other hand, claiming that all politicians deserve to die or that people shouldn’t pay their taxes are, in most cases, forms of protected speech because they probably do not incite or help to bring about imminent lawless activity.

The problem is that none of this is applicable here. Suicide isn’t illegal, and neither is it violence as we normally understand the word. So, the commonly accepted exception to free speech rights that I just cited can’t possibly justify the conviction of Melchert-Dinkel. He did of course advocate, incite and cheer on his victims, and his advocacy, incitement and cheering probably helped to produce their suicides. But a suicide is not a crime or an act of violence. At least not as such. One could argue that the encouragement of a suicidal person should be viewed as a form of murder. And if that statement goes too far for you, you may want to consider the fact that causing someone else’s death is in general a crime, whichever way you do it. Moreover, if the victims in this case were suffering from depression or a mental illness, the state has a duty to provide healthcare, and allowing someone else to worsen their depression or illness to the point that they kill themselves is not consistent with this duty.

So, while the encouragement of suicide in general, the teaching the methods of suicide or the claim that non-suicidal people should go and kill themselves (“you don’t deserve to live”, “why don’t you just go and kill yourself”) are all forms of protected speech, the same is not the case for speech that encourages specific suicidal people to kill themselves.

The Freedom to Speak Implies the Freedom to Shut Up

I argued before that there can’t be a duty to speak, except in certain very specific cases involving a moral urgency. Hence, if you’re free to speak you’re also free to shut up. The freedom to shut up, although not recognized as a human right, can be important for the protection of other rights, either the rights of the person deciding to remain silent, or the rights of others.

For example, you have a right not to incriminate yourself (in the U.S., this right is translated into the Miranda rights and the Fifth Amendment). You may also want to remain silent because you want to choose your audience carefully. Some of your speech has to remain private, and your right to privacy would therefore be violated if you can’t remain silent in certain settings.

Or you may decide to remain silent in order to protect the rights of others: for instance, you may decide that certain words at a certain time and place would risk inciting others to commit crimes. Or perhaps your words may make it easier for others to commit crimes (take the case of a murderer asking you where he can find his intended victim).

However, the right to shut up is not just relevant in cases in which it can protect the speaker or others against rights violations. For instance, someone may refuse to pledge allegiance to the flag, take an oath on the bible, divulge his or her religious beliefs etc.