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 (35): Publishing Lists of Pedophiles on the Internet, Ctd.

A follow-up from this previous post on the same subject. We should of course do our utmost to protect people, and especially children, from sexual predators. In the U.S., and to a lesser degree elsewhere, “utmost” means publishing so-called “registries” of sex offenders on the internet. These registries contain the names, addresses and offenses of people convicted for sex crimes. The purpose of the registries is to inform people about the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders and allow them to take measures to protect their children. (A few examples of registries are here, here and here; some of those are government sites, others are not).

By definition, since the purpose is protection, these registries should contain only information on people who are likely to offend again, and to offend in a way that is dangerous to children (and possibly adults). People who have been convicted in the past but are not deemed to be possible repeat offenders, or people convicted for sex crimes that are not dangerous (flashers for example) shouldn’t be included, but regularly are.

These registries are an exercise of free speech. The question here is: should they be allowed, or are they doing more harm than good? In other words: should this case of freedom of speech be restricted in order to protect other rights? (we’ve seen before how human rights can be limited when they come into conflict with other human rights). Which other rights could possibly be harmed by this exercise of free speech? One could say the right to privacy of the offenders (it’s not because you’re a convicted criminal that you automatically lose your right t privacy). But that’s not obvious. Someone’s address and criminal record aren’t private information. So registries of sex offenders aren’t, by definition, violations of the right to privacy. Hence, the right to free speech of publishers of such registries can’t be limited because of the right to privacy of the offenders.

But there are other reasons why the rights of those publishers can be limited. Registries can (and did) lead to

  • harassment of offenders, violent attacks and even murder
  • ostracism, including their family members and children (some registries even have button to print a mugshot that can be posted on the offenders’ doors)
  • violations of their right to freely choose a residence: they are either chased away, or legally prohibited from living near certain places (schools, playgrounds…); sometimes these prohibitions are so restrictive that people are forced to be homeless (in Miami, exclusion zones have created a camp of homeless offenders under a bridge)
  • violations of the right to work: people whose names are in registries are often fired from their jobs or have difficulties finding a job.

These are obviously rights violations that are serious enough to at least make us consider whether the right to free speech of the publishers of registries should be maintained.

And even the right to privacy can become a problem. As noted, addresses and criminal records aren’t private. However, many registries contain a lot of “noise” – people who do not pose any threat (some U.S. states requires registration of people who have visited prostitutes, who have had consensual sex as teenagers etc.). Not only does this label harmless people as “predators”, with often devastating consequences for them. Another result of this noise is that the registries become useless. As a consequence, those who defend the registries ask for more information to be included so that they can judge which “predator” is a real one:

I agree that a man who exposes himself to a woman may not pose the same danger as a convicted child-molester or rapist. All represent a threat, however, so the solution is thus not less information but more detailed information. Give me the facts about the offence and let me decide the level of risk to me and my family. As the parent of two young children I would like to know who my neighbour is going to be before I buy that new home. Adrian Kendall

Taken to its logical extreme, such a view will defend putting everything “bad” about everyone in a super-register. Perhaps registries could be used on a need-to-know basis only.

Limiting Free Speech (34): Pornography and Sexual Violence

In this older post I mentioned the possibility that pornography causes sexual violence, and that this violence could be one of the justifications for prohibiting or limiting pornography, and hence for limiting one form of free speech. (The physical integrity rights of the victims of pornography induced sexual violence outweigh the rights to free speech of pornographers and their clients). I also cited some scientific research corroborating the link between pornography and sexual violence.

Now I came across some evidence pointing in another direction. Large increases of internet use of the last years, together with a proliferation of websites offering free porn, should, in theory, lead to a large increase in the numbers of rape. But that isn’t the case.

The rise of the Internet offers a gigantic natural experiment. Better yet, because Internet usage caught on at different times in different states, it offers 50 natural experiments. The bottom line on these experiments is, “More Net access, less rape.” A 10 percent increase in Net access yields about a 7.3 percent decrease in reported rapes. States that adopted the Internet quickly saw the biggest declines. And, according to Clemson professor Todd Kendall, the effects remain even after you control for all of the obvious confounding variables, such as alcohol consumption, police presence, poverty and unemployment rates, population density, and so forth. Steven E. Landsburg (source)

Another study:

A vocal segment of the population has serious concerns about the effect of pornography in society and challenges its public use and acceptance. This manuscript reviews the major issues associated with the availability of sexually explicit material. It has been found everywhere it was scientifically investigated that as pornography has increased in availability, sex crimes have either decreased or not increased. (source, source)

So it seems that the opposite is true: more porn = less rape. Maybe porn is a substitute for rape. In which case, one of the justifications for restricting the free speech rights of pornographers collapses. However, I mentioned in my old post that sexual violence isn’t the only possible reason to limit the rights to free speech of pornographers. Pornography can, for instance, perpetuate discriminatory gender roles. And the quote below shows that there is some evidence that pornography increases the likelihood of re-offending:

In this study, we examined the unique contribution of pornography consumption to the longitudinal prediction of criminal recidivism in a sample of 341 child molesters. We specifically tested the hypothesis, based on predictions informed by the confluence model of sexual aggression that pornography will be a risk factor for recidivism only for those individuals classified as relatively high risk for re-offending. Pornography use (frequency and type) was assessed through self-report and recidivism was measured using data from a national database from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Indices of recidivism, which were assessed up to 15 years after release, included an overall criminal recidivism index, as well as subcategories focusing on violent (including sexual) recidivism and sexual recidivism alone. Results for both frequency and type of pornography use were generally consistent with our predictions. Most importantly, after controlling for general and specific risk factors for sexual aggression, pornography added significantly to the prediction of recidivism. Statistical interactions indicated that frequency of pornography use was primarily a risk factor for higher-risk offenders, when compared with lower-risk offenders, and that content of pornography (i.e., pornography containing deviant content) was a risk factor for all groups. The importance of conceptualizing particular risk factors (e.g., pornography), within the context of other individual characteristics is discussed. (source)

Limiting Free Speech (32b): Talking Back to the Cops

US cops, acting on false information given to them by “concerned bystanders”, busted Henry Louis Gates for trying to force his way into his own house and for consequently reacting to the cops in a way that supposedly amounted to “disorderly conduct”.

First of all, I don’t intend to dig up the details of the case or pronounce moral judgment on either Gates or the cops. Probably both had good reasons for their conduct – I don’t know, I wasn’t there. Racial profiling is a cancer in society, and when someone like Gates is confronted with it, I understand his anger and perhaps his sense of responsibility to react to it. Given his moral stature in the community, I think it’s even likely that he used the occasion to react in an overly theatrical way in order to get a point across, hoping that the fact that he was doing it on his own property would shield him against arrest. Or perhaps hoping the contrary. If so, he certainly succeeded. The police officer, on the other hand, was probably also doing what he thought was his job and it’s unlikely that he was racially motivated.

But I don’t know any of this. So I’ll cut out the speculation and go on to the substantive theoretical point: should people, when confronted by the police, have a right to speak up, possible even in a “disorderly manner”, i.e. high pitched voices and rude language? I think that’s the case, at least in most circumstances (and so does the US judiciary).

Many cops are overly sensitive to people talking back. It undermines their authority, and a quick move with the handcuffs does wonders to restore it. Of course, people talking back can also be dangerous for cops, since talking back can escalate to violence. I think cops should be able to make the distinction between people talking back because they have a genuine grievance, and other people who simply talk back because they know it can serve them well when they are able to undermine the police action.

This means that cops can, and should be able to, use their discretion when deciding that someone should or should not be able to exercise their freedom of speech. Of course, there’s always the possibility to have this discretion reviewed by a judge afterwards. But that discretion is conditional on the cops’ training. They should have thick skins. That’s an elementary requirement for being a cop. Having thick skin means that you don’t automatically consider talking back as an affront to your dignity and authority as a cop. In other words, it means that you can distinguish between, on the one hand, justified talk – i.e. the expression of rational (but not necessarily justified) grievances, even if they are not expressed in a rational way – and, on the other hand, possibly dangerous talk.

Respect and honor are important, but we all know what happens when we require too much respect and when our honor has the strength of egg shells. It’s inherent in the job of a police officer to have people talking back. As a police officer, you don’t tell people what they want to hear, and you tell it to them when they’re in personally difficult circumstances. You annoy them, almost by definition. Hence, reactions and abuse are part of the job. Going around and arresting everyone who talks back to you would be quite difficult, if not impossible. Try to talk them down. Verbal skills, like thick skin, are part of your cv. Sure, you deserve respect, and people who have grievances should address them to you in a civilized manner. But freedom of speech extends beyond civilized speech.

Also, a lot depends on the circumstances in which the talking back takes place. In the Gates case, it appears that events took place on the property of Gates. It would  have been quite different if a lonely cop was taking abuse from a crowd of people in a down town area, even if the words being uttered were exactly the same.

So it seems that there can be no clear rule for or against the right to talk back. (Bill Easterly has a nice post on “inflexible rules“). We should allow cops to use their discretion, but we should also train them to do so. Civilians have the right to free speech, even abusive speech, but should accept that this right is limited in certain circumstances.

One more point: it has been observed in psychological experiments that allowing people to vent defuses a situation and makes it less dangerous. Shutting people up just multiplies their frustations, and a violent explosion becomes more likely.

Limiting Free Speech (32): Hate Speech in Canada

In Canadian law and jurisprudence, the definition of hate speech as a form of speech that falls outside the protection of the right to free speech, is quite different from the definition in the U.S. And quite different as well from what I personally think is correct. I believe Canada is on the wrong track in this respect, and should move closer to the U.S. view.

In the U.S., the two main Supreme Court cases defining the rules concerning hate speech, are Brandenburg v Ohio and R.A.V. v St Paul. Hate speech in the U.S. can only be punished when it is likely to incite imminent lawless action. This is consistent with my personal view that human rights can be limited solely for the protection of other rights or the rights or others.

In Canada, however, it’s not the likelihood of actual harm than can turn speech into prohibited hate speech. The expression of hatred, irrespective of the possible consequences of this expression, is considered a crime. The content itself is the crime, not where it may lead. Canadian law and jurisprudence (see here for instance) assume that hate speech in itself, independent from its consequences, inflicts harm on a plural and tolerant society. The objective of Canadian hate speech laws is not only the prevention of harm to individuals and their rights, but also the protection of the kind of society Canada wants to be.

Obviously, Canadian society deserves protection, as does tolerance in general. But it’s quite another thing to claim that this protection requires content-based hate speech laws. I don’t think content as such should ever be the sole test of whether to protect speech or not. The (possible) consequences for the rights of others should be the main criterion, together with intent.

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.

Limiting Free Speech (30): The Heckler’s Veto

Should someone in an audience – or an entire audience for that matter – have the right to silence a speaker by way of hostile and loud reactions? Or is this a case in which the right to free speech of an audience or someone in an audience can be restricted? In the U.S., “heckling” as it is called does not violate the right to free speech of the speaker who is being heckled. The First Amendment only protects speech from government infringement, not from private infringement (“Congress shall make no law…”). In this case, the heckler is presumed to be a private person, and his or her actions therefore cannot violate the First Amendment.

I believe that this is an American anomaly, and that people’s right to free speech should be protected against both government and private infringement. Private individuals can also violate someone’s right to free speech.

Still, let’s return to the case of heckling in the U.S. Audiences have a right to heckle, as they should have. The leading judicial decision here is In re Kay of the Supreme Court of California. This decision overturned a 4 month prison sentence for hecklers who had shouted and clapped during a speech by a member of Congress.

The Court granted the right to heckle and stated that this is a legitimate part of the “cacophony of democracy”. Even though heckling and booing and shouting and other types of disruption may be uncivilized, impolite and often stupid, it’s free speech and it should be protected.

But at the same time, the Court allowed the state to punish hecklers when their disruption results in the impossibility to continue a meeting or a speech. The right to free speech of the hecklers has to be balanced against the right to free speech of the heckled. One right shouldn’t be allowed to destroy the other right.

Freedom of everyone to talk at once can destroy the right of anyone effectively to talk at all. Free expression can expire as tragically in the tumult of license as in the silence of censorship. In re Kay

I think the Court got this one absolutely right. And it seems that there’s a recognition that the state isn’t the only threat to free speech.

Limiting Free Speech (29): Cross Burning

Cross burning is a typically, if not uniquely American type of “speech”. It’s the quintessential expression of hatred of African-Americans. The usual culprits are members of the Ku Klux Klan or KKK (and copycats). Historically, cross burning has been a signal of impending violence and terror. It was often a morbid prelude to lynchings or other acts of racist violence.

Nowadays, cross burnings are relatively rare, and intended to intimidate rather than signal the first step in actual violence. Nevertheless, given the history of cross burning, present-day occurrences understandably continue to instill a real sensation of fear and panic in the intended targets. Which is of course the intention.

The question is: should cross burning be considered as a form of speech that merits the protection of the freedom of speech (the First Amendment in the U.S.), or should it rather be an example of hate speech that can and should be made illegal?

If we focus on the U.S. for the moment, then the leading Supreme Court case is Virginia v Black. This case deals with 2 different criminal cases of people convicted for cross burning. In one case, an argument escalated and two defendants burned a cross in the front yard of their African-American neighbor. The other case involved a cross being burned in the garden of a member of the KKK during a private KKK “party”. The burning cross, however, could be seen by the general public.

Virgina v Black protects cross burning as a form of free speech, but also provides the possibility to make it illegal under certain circumstances (as we’ve seen many times before in this blog series on limiting freedom of speech, the circumstances are always important). And, according to Virgina v Black, the circumstances which would make it possible to restrict freedom of speech in the case of cross burning are not limited to those which can normally restrict freedom of speech in other cases. Speech acts that produce an imminent danger of physical violence, acts that result in reckless endangerment (in this case the risk that the act evolves into an arson attack), or speech acts that lead to trespassing are not protected by the First Amendment. Physical violence, arson and trespassing are illegal, and the fact that they are combined with a speech act doesn’t make them legal. If a speech act is combined with such illegal acts, or is likely to lead to such acts, then the speech acts are not protected by the right to free speech.

According to Virgina v Black, the circumstances which can make cross burning illegal go beyond this and include the intent of the speaker to intimidate and terrorize specific and identifiable persons, even if these persons are not in immediate physical danger. And cross burnings today usually doesn’t result in physical danger.

Now, you could say that cross burning is by definition intended to intimidate, but that’s not the case. Not all cross burnings are intended to intimidate – take the example of the KKK party cited above – and not all cross burnings are equally intimidating. It depends on the circumstances in which the cross burning takes place, and on the fact if it is clearly targeted against certain individuals. If the cross burning takes place close to the homes of African-Americans, and are part of a long chain of intimidation and racist incidents, then they are more intimidating than in other cases. And more intimidating means a higher risk that the rights of the targets will be violated. The African-Americans may feel forced to move, which violates their right to freely choose their residence. They may feel that it is necessary to keep their children away from school, which is a violation of their right to education, etc. In such cases, the right to free speech of the KKK members should obviously be restricted for the benefit of the rights of their targets. But in other cases, they may be allowed to wallow in their silly hobby.

I think Virginia v Black strikes the right balance. For another Supreme Court case on cross burning, see here.

Limiting Free Speech (28): Free Speech at Work

Should people be allowed to enjoy an unlimited right to free speech at work, and be able to ask courts to undo measures (such as sacking or disciplinary measures) which their employer has taken against them as a result of their speech? Or do corporations and government agencies have a right to take measures against employees engaging in certain types of speech, a right which therefore trumps the right to speech? And is there a difference between the rights of corporations and the rights of (certain) government agencies?

I could make this brief, and say that employees are citizens like all other citizens, and should have a right to free speech. I could say that, if there are any possible and acceptable (or necessary) limitations on the right to free speech, they have nothing to do with the fact that those engaging in speech act as employees or as citizens. I could say that the place where people speak – at work or elsewhere – doesn’t change anything.

Unfortunately, I can’t. The place where speech takes place does matter, as I have mentioned already in the case of hate speech (hate speech in front of an angry mob gathered at the house of a pedophile is different from the exact same speech written down in a book almost no one reads).

As I will argue, the same is true in the current case. Speech at work may be treated in another way than speech elsewhere. There are some good reasons to impose stricter limits on speech at work than on speech in general. Employers therefore also have the right to take certain measures against employees engaging in speech which may be restricted (in fact, these measures are the restrictions). Also, certain government agencies can impose more and wider restrictions than private corporations. All these restrictions on the freedom of speech are possible because they are necessary for the protection of other rights or the rights of others (I try to make this a general rule when discussing restrictions on human rights, see here).

But before I argue this, I want to sketch the baseline first. Free speech is very important, and I don’t think there are many people who believe this more than me (as any regular reader of this blog knows). As government agencies, but also private corporations, regularly violate human rights, free speech at work is perhaps even more important than free speech in general. People working for agencies or corporations engaged in rights violations, must have the right (and the possibility) to denounce these practices. So, if I argue for the right of corporations and agencies to restrict, in certain cases, the right to free speech of their employees, I have to be careful to do so without jeopardizing the important rights of whistleblowers.

The U.S. Supreme Court, which allows government agencies to limit the freedom of speech of their employees, also acknowledges the importance of whistleblowers. When the speech in question is of “public concern”,* the Court uses a higher threshold to uphold speech-related disciplinary measures against employees. (The Court uses the so-called Pickering test). (However, the Supreme Court is still oddly restrictive in this respect. Whereas, normally, free speech is considered to be very important by the Court, in case of speech at work, “public concern” is not enough to uphold the right to speech. It’s just a first threshold to be passed for the Court to asses the possibility of reviewing disciplinary action. When there is no “public concern”, there’s no right to free speech at work according to SCOTUS!).

Now, when and why should the rights of corporations and government agencies to sanction their employees for acts of speech, take precedence over the right to free speech of these employees? Corporations and agencies have a right to function without disruption. A government agency even has a duty to function without disruption, because it serves the public interest. And this interest more often than not includes certain human rights. For example, a government hospital has a duty to protect the healthcare rights of citizens. If speech acts at the hospital disrupt its normal functioning, the rights of citizens may be put at risk. If, in addition, these speech acts don’t have anything to do with the functioning or organization of the hospital, it is difficult to see why they should be more important than the rights of patients. However, if the speech acts uncover serious incompetence at the hospital, the disruption that follows these acts may be a price that is worth paying.

Regarding corporations, the burden of proof on those wishing to impose restrictions on speech at work, is heavier. Corporations usually don’t work for the protection of human rights of citizens, and therefore cannot put these rights in the balance. However, corporations are the property of certain citizens, and these citizens have a right to use this property. Speech acts in corporations can result in disturbances of a kind that makes this use of property difficult or impossible. If, in addition, these speech acts don’t serve any public purpose or address a public concern, it may be justified to consider the right to property more important than the right to speech, in certain cases. For example, should we really accept and protect flag burning during office hours and in office buildings? And who would take sides with an employee wasting huge amounts of company time on frivolous speech?

And there’s another problem with judicial protection of speech at work. Employees may claim that disciplinary measures taken against them (including dismissal) were based on their speech acts, whereas in reality these measures were based on a lack of performance. Employers may become unwilling to take such measures because of the risk of costly litigation. Outspoken but incompetent employees will then be privileged, and others discriminated. Another result: the employer’s authority and ability to organize and lead are put at risk if many of her decisions can be reversed by judges.

* This “public concern” usually means that the speech in question should have something to do with the preferable manner of operating the agency, or should contain information which is vital to proper decision-making. Both definitions of “public concern” cover the activities of whistle-blowers.

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.

Limiting Free Speech (24): Political Correctness

Political correctness (or PC) is a form of speech that is characterized by the willingness to avoid offense to certain groups in society, often groups which have a history of suffering and rights violations.

It is a form of speech that excludes certain concepts and phrases that are thought to be expressions of hatred, discrimination and rights violations. Such expressions, it is believed, serve to keep these violations alive and well, and protecting human rights therefore requires the exclusion of these expressions. Examples of these expressions and concepts or phrases are “nigger”, “women should play the main role in the household”, “black people are genetically less intelligent than white people”, “affirmative action is discrimination of whites”, the systematic use of “he” to describe a person, or of “man” to describe a member of the human race etc.

Hence, political correctness is a limitation of free speech that is believed to be necessary in order to protect other rights. Politically incorrect speech is a strategy in the continuation or reinstatement of rights violations, for example discrimination of women, racism, or unequal opportunities. Language determines the thoughts, mentalities and actions of both the speakers and listeners. For example, convictions regarding negative stereotypes are facilitated by the availability and widespread use of pejorative and stereotypical labels. A user of these labels will be confirmed in his or her believes, and a target of these labels will suffer a loss of self-esteem and will, as a result, find it difficult to escape from his or her unequal position in society. Hence, using politically incorrect stereotypes contributes to the continuation of inequality. On the other hand, “outlawing” such stereotypes forces people to think about how they describe other people and forces them to focus on individual characteristics rather than stereotypes.

Proponents of PC believe that language should be used for good purposes rather than bad ones. They don’t want language to be a tool to oppress. They seek cultural change through linguistic change, but this has an impact on the freedom of speech: certain types of expressions, phrases or concepts are off limits according to the proponents of politically correct speech, and other types are mandatory. Speech should be as inclusive and neutral (gender neutral, race neutral etc.) as possible. Hence constructions such as “s/he”, “African-American”, “holiday season” instead of Christmas etc.

PC can be criticized in several ways. I just pick two types of criticism that seem most convincing to me. Politically correct speech is a kind of orthodoxy or an example of dogmatic thinking or group thinking, which is why the concept of PC is mostly pejorative. Politically incorrect speech on the other hand can be seen as rebellious, original and individualistic. It can be very useful in identifying hidden assumptions, prejudices etc. Of course, political incorrectness can become a prejudice in itself, obscuring the need for real debate on some human rights issues.

Whether or not PC is justified depends on the effects of language on rights violations. There is certainly some effect. Especially in the early, formative years, people can be influenced by speech, and can grow up to become persons with mentalities that are inimical to human rights. And they will certainly act on these mentalities. But I believe that the proponents of PC overstate the importance of the causal link. It’s not true that sexist or racist language always and necessarily produces sexism and racism. These rights violations have a myriad of causes. Hence it is dangerous to identify certain forms of speech as the main causes, and consequently “outlaw” them, perhaps not legally but morally. This can result in cultural communism, a totalitarian and intolerant “regime” censoring and punishing dissent and “heresy”. It is not unheard of that people lose their jobs and/or reputation because of a sin against PC.

By the way, one particularly funny instance of political correctness are the annual arguments about Christmas. Christian traditionalists and PC people who think that a Christian holiday may be an insult to other religions, outdo each other in silly talk.

Limiting Free Speech (23): Blasphemy Laws

Blasphemy laws are obviously limitations on the freedom of speech, and in my view, unjustifiable limitations. Blasphemy is a disrespectful or insulting statement about a God or a religion. It’s a kind of defamation or libel of God. (I disregard in the current context the act of claiming the attributes or prerogatives of deity, also a kind of blasphemy).

I never quite understood how people can think that an almighty God can be insulted by statements made by unbelievers, and needs to be protected against such statements by blasphemy laws. And I don’t say this because I’m agnostic. I would say the same thing if I was a believer. I think my God would be able to take it, and I can’t understand the concept of a God who can’t take it.

More intelligent proponents of laws prohibiting blasphemy see my point and redirect these laws towards a defense, not of God himself, but of his teachings and his flock. Blasphemy is then a verbal attack on a particular faith or on the followers of this faith. But this is also a sign of weakness and self-doubt. It implies that blasphemous statements can hurt a community of believers, individual believers or elements of a faith. It implies, in other words, that this faith isn’t very strong, either as a system of belief, or as someone’s conviction. So maybe the system of belief is so weak that it needs to be defended by law against criticism, because otherwise it would fall apart. Or maybe the believers need protection so as not to loose their belief. But perhaps the hurt in question doesn’t refer to a teaching or a belief, but is merely a matter of being insulted. And then I refer to a previous post in this series, more generally on the supposed right not to be offended (see also here).

Fortunately, blasphemy laws are more or less defunct in most western democracies. They are common only in theocracies. However, there are calls for their reinstatement in some democracies, especially those with large Muslim communities. It is an unfortunate fact that most of the modern day terrorist attacks are carried out by radical Muslims, and this fact convinces some people that there is a kind of necessary link between the religion of Islam and terrorism. As a result, public discourse in some circles is rife with incendiary remarks about Islam (Wilders is a particularly loud example). No matter how simplistic and unfair these remarks are, they are taken very seriously by many Muslims who seek to stop them by demanding the reinstatement and application of blasphemy laws. Some democratic governments seem to take these demands on board, and consider blasphemy laws to be a good way to accommodate religious and cultural sensitivities, to avoid social divisions, violent protest and radicalization of young Muslims.

However, I think they are wrong. Rather than silencing the debate about Islam and terrorism, governments should allow moderates within and outside of Islam the chance to win it. Blasphemy laws will only encourage islamophobes in their belief that Islam is intolerant and weak, seeking special protection because it is flawed to such an extent that it cannot survive criticism. And they get further encouragement from the often harsh and brutal punishments for blasphemy demanded by some vocal Muslim minorities.

In many countries, blasphemy laws are used as a means of political oppression. When religious leaders are also political leaders, or closely affiliated with political leaders, these laws can stifle dissent and opposition because they recast criticism of politics as criticism of religion. Even a secular leader can use blasphemy laws to decide religious animosity between groups in a way that suits his own purposes.

Blasphemy laws are a symptom of an insufficient separation between state and church. Religious liberty requires equal treatment of all religions, and equal political and legal power for all religions. Otherwise the choice for a religion wouldn’t be a free one. Blasphemy laws typically do not apply to all religions equally.

Limiting Free Speech (21): Publishing Lists of Pedophiles on the Internet

I know from experience that it’s not useless for a human rights defender to make this clear from the start: sexual activity with children is despicable and must be punished severely, but this punishment doesn’t imply the abandonment of all human rights by the convicted pedophiles. When you’ll read the rest of this post, you may rush to the conclusion that we pay more attention to the rights of criminals than to the rights of victims. Nothing is further from the truth.

My point is that the practice of publishing lists of pedophiles on special websites on the internet (also called “outing pedophiles”) may be well-intentioned but it is inappropriate and even dangerous, especially when such lists include addresses of pedophiles who have been released from prison and have done their time.

It’s not because you’re a convicted pedophile that you lose all your human rights, including your right to privacy. Of course, the fact that you are or have been a pedophile isn’t a private fact. You have been convicted in an open and fair trial, and hence your crime is in the public domain. There’s no reason to keep judicial verdicts secret. On the contrary. The facts of your crime may also be very relevant to people not immediately concerned with the crime or the trial, such as the children of your new wife. And perhaps your new neighbors should be informed, especially when there’s a risk that you’ll repeat your crime. (But then why have you been released?)

So the information regarding your crime isn’t private, and can be used in a targeted way to inform people who may need to know. But there is a difference between a fact being part of the public domain (and circulated in a targeted way), and the use of this fact in a sensationalist manner, by people who will never have anything to do with you, and directed at people who likewise will never be involved. (A very large majority of child molesters attacks relatives or the children of friends).

Your crime isn’t private, but what can be gained by publishing your whereabouts and informing people who will never be likely victims? It seems to me that websites that publish the whereabouts of pedophiles are part of a retrograde style of “justice”, in which it is important to name and shame, to publicly expose a felon, and ridicule him or her. And when the public starts to react, and start to call the alleged pedophiles to see “if they still rape children”, then there is an unjustified invasion of privacy. And maybe other rights will suffer as well, such as the right to physical security and bodily integrity of the pedophiles. In certain cases the “naming and shaming” amounts to incitement to violence. There have been cases of attacks on pedophiles following the publication of their names and whereabouts.

I suspect that the people who create these sites, rather than “protect the public”, intend to whip up a scandal, and hopefully get some attention. They also imply that the justice system is inadequate, and they want to cultivate public mistrust in institutions and politics. Institutions are never perfect, but fostering negativity isn’t the way to make them better.

Another problem: the lists that are published often contain people who are merely accused of pedophilia (and not yet convicted), or people who are, to some, suspicious. Imagine what it must be like for an innocent person to appear on such a list. A court deals much better with the presumption of innocence than an angry mob.

The rationale behind rules prohibiting the outing of pedophiles, and explicitly limiting the right to free speech of the “outers”, is the protection of the rights of the pedophiles (such as the right to privacy, inviolability of the home, and physical security). Some may find it difficult to accept that pedophiles have rights, and that some people pay attention to these rights, rather than to the rights of the victims. But it is fair to say that a defining part of our shared humanity is precisely the limits we impose on the ways in which people can be punished.

And, of course, we do pay attention to the rights of victims. That is why pedophiles are put into prison. And we have to try to balance the pedophiles’ rights against those of their victims and possible victims even after they leave prison. That is why I stated above that it should be possible to inform neighbors and new family members. This kind of information is a limitation of certain rights of pedophiles – such as the right to form a family, the right to choose a residence etc. – for the sake of the rights of possible victims. We rightly believe that such limitations are less harmful than a new attack on children.

So-called zoning laws are also justified in certain cases. Pedophiles are then prohibited from entering a certain zone, or loitering and living in a certain zone (e.g. close to schools or playgrounds). These laws limit the right to choose a residence and the right to freedom of movement of the pedophiles in question, but if there is a high probability that these laws will prevent future attacks on children, then they are justified because the rights of the children that would be violated by an attack are more important than the cited rights of the pedophiles.

Of course, zoning laws aren’t always the answer, and may create more problems than they solve. They can make it harder for law enforcement officers to keep track of the pedophiles, and make it harder for the pedophiles to receive treatment for their condition. Hence, zoning laws may be counter-productive.

Limiting Free Speech (20): Flag Burning and Flag Desecration

Flag burning (or other types of desecration of national flags) is a form of speech. It may not be a very refined or profound expression of opinions or ideas, but it is an expression nevertheless. Flag burning expresses disgust and hatred for a certain country or a country’s government and policies. It’s typically a very emotional form of speech, devoid of rational argument and reduced to simplistic slogans, and most often used in a setting of mass protest.

Given that it is a form of speech, it should, a priori, enjoy the protection of the right to free speech. However, in certain exceptional circumstances there’s a rationale for prohibiting it. It is a form of hate speech, and the rules governing limitations of hate speech apply here as well. In a nutshell: hate speech can be prohibited when it incites violence.

Now, it’s not impossible to imagine cases where flag burning can incite violence (burning the flag of Israel in front of a surrounded Jewish enclave when a pogrom is imminent, for example), but I guess that most cases of flag burning are much less harmful. So a general law forbidding flag burning doesn’t seem justifiable. There have been several attempts in the U.S. Congress to vote for an Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to allow a ban on flag burning:

On June 27, 2006, the most recent attempt to pass a ban on flag burning was rejected by the Senate in a close vote of 66 in favor, 34 opposed, one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to send the amendment to be voted on by the states. (source)

Much of this is of course political posturing of politicians trying to be the most patriotic. Given the rarity of flag burning in the U.S., it’s also a typical example of a solution in search of a problem.

Those who would burn the flag destroy the symbol of freedom, but amending the Constitution would destroy part of freedom itself. Richard Savage (source)

The fact that patriotic people are offended by flag burning isn’t a sufficient reason to ban it. (I’ve argued here against a right not to be offended).

Limiting Free Speech (18): Lèse Majesté

Lèse majesté (a French expression but originally from a Latin expression meaning “injury to the Majesty”) is a legal rule making it a crime to say or write things that offend or insult a king or queen, or violate his or her dignity.

Fortunately, this kind of limitation of freedom of speech has become extremely rare. Most countries have done away with the archaic institution of the monarchy and hence also their lèse majesté rules. Or they have relegated their monarchies to the domain of symbolism and celebrity. Absolute monarchies or monarchical dictatorships are the exception nowadays. Oppression has become a distinctly “republican” affair. (Some of the remaining absolute monarchies are Brunei, Qatar, the southern African Kingdom of Swaziland, and Saudi Arabia).

Most of the monarchies that continue to exist have no strict practice of limiting free speech on the grounds of lèse majesté. They may have some legal rules, but they aren’t applied rigorously. So, on a global level, it’s difficult to claim that lèse majesté is a big problem for freedom of speech. However, some monarchies do impose the rule and thereby violate the right to freedom of speech to a large extent. I’m thinking of course of Thailand. The law there states:

The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action. Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen or the Heir-apparent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to 15 years. (source)

Moreover, a precise definition of defamation of or insult to the king is lacking, making the net very tight. As a result, the law has shown itself very useful for political vendettas. There have been numerous cases of censorship, self-censorship and imprisonment, often as a consequences of rather ridiculous faits divers:

Frenchman Lech Tomacz Kisielwicz refused to switch off a reading light on a Thai Airways flight he shared with two Thai princesses and was jailed under lèse majesté for two weeks after his flight landed in Bangkok. He was acquitted after apologizing to the King. (source)

But the consequences of many cases have been much more serious than the causes. Writers and academics have been jailed, thousands of internet sites are blocked, books and magazines such as The Economist have been banned etc. It’s not impossible that the site you’re reading now will suffer the same fate.

Thai law goes well beyond protection of the royal family. It has been used and abused to protect and justify an entire ruling elite, an autocratic and conservative social system, and even military coups.

Other monarchies are much more tolerant. It’s worth mentioning that some non-monarchies also have rules prohibiting insults to heads of states. In October 2006, a Polish man was arrested in Warsaw after expressing his dissatisfaction with the president and prime minister by farting loudly (see here).

Lèse majesté laws in one form or another, especially in countries where the beneficiaries of such protection are relatively powerful, is undemocratic. They can stifle large areas of political journalism and debate, and make it impossible to expose official wrongdoing and corruption.

Limiting Free Speech (17): Media Attention and the Chilling Effect

Our right to free speech doesn’t imply a duty of other people to listen to us. However, speech in general requires listeners. People speak because they want to be heard. They want to convince other people of their point of view, they want to build communities around issues and causes, and ultimately many acts of speech are intended to change the world. Most people don’t speak because they like the sound of their voice. They want people to listen.

The lack of an obligation to listen doesn’t, in itself, limit free speech. My freedom of speech isn’t limited by the fact that no one listens. However, a lack of an audience or a public, a lack of attention and recognition does make people want to stop speaking. Speaking to a wall gets boring after a while. So we can say that a lack of attention has a chilling effect on speech.

As such, this isn’t a problem. There are good reasons why many utterances don’t receive attention. They are uninteresting and the world isn’t any the poorer without them. So let them chill. But we all know that attention isn’t just. People lack attention for both the good and the bad. Many good things don’t get any attention, and many bad things do. A lack of attention can and does silence people who have truly interesting things to say, and the world is less without them.

Attention would be more just if people were not manipulated towards and away from certain types of speech. And here the culprit is the media. The media are essential in bringing sources of speech to a public. Book publishers make books from someone’s speech, and take these books to people who are willing to pay some attention to them. Television programs, internet sites, magazines etc. basically do the same.

But the media make a choice. Some cases of speech are “mediated”, others aren’t. They would create a just type of attention for cases of speech, if they would make this choice solely on the basis of the value (“the interestingness”) of the cases, but of course they don’t. The media have various reasons to select the speakers that are given an audience. The most important reason isn’t quality but profit. What will create the biggest profit? As a result, the most outrageous and controversial (e.g. Ann Coulter), the most sexually appealing (e.g. Paris Hilton), the most violent (e.g. Bin Laden), the most spectacular (e.g. Harry Potter) etc. receive the most attention.

This is often enough for moderate, thoughtful and nuanced seekers of the truth to simply give up. No one can say that their right to free speech was actually violated by some ominous power. They were simply discouraged to speak by “anonymous market forces” that are just as efficient as the most brutal dictator. And no one knows what the world has lost.

Limiting Free Speech (16): Fighting Words

Fighting words are written or spoken words expressed to incite violence. This is related to the topic of hate speech, but it isn’t quite the same thing. Hate speech isn’t necessarily intended to incite violence (just simple hate in some cases).

In Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (in 1942), the U.S. Supreme Court decided that “fighting words”, words that tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace, are among the

well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech [which] the prevention and punishment of have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or “fighting” words those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.

Speech that merely causes anger, offense, insult or outrage does not amount to fighting words. Fighting words must present an actual threat of immediate violence or must “reasonably incite the average person to retaliate.”

It’s not true that certain words inevitably provoke violent reactions by individuals. Rather, one should take into account the context in which the words were uttered, not merely the content of the words themselves.

Given the rules for limiting free speech described in this post, the case of fighting words is rather simple. Inciting violence leads to violations of individual rights to security and bodily integrity, and in many cases these rights should take precedence over the right to free speech. It seems difficult to accept that hurting someone is a lesser evil than limiting someone’s right to speak and threaten.

Limiting Free Speech (14): Religious Education in Public Schools

There can be nothing wrong with educating children about religion. And I say this as an agnostic. But religious education must include information about all the world’s main religions, and about atheism as well. And it also shouldn’t avoid mentioning some of the problems caused by religion. Children benefit from seeing all sides of the coin.

Even public schools, i.e. schools instituted, organized and funded by the government, should provide this kind of religious education. Banning religion from public schools is wrong, but not because it would be a limitation on the freedom of speech of religions, as some religious activists claim. It’s not because you’re not allowed to speak in a certain place that you’re not allowed to speak (freedom of speech does not include the right to say anything anywhere; if it would, then newspapers would be forced to print everything everyone asks them to print). Such a ban is wrong for another reason: it would be stupid and a disservice to children.

It would be politically and legally wrong to have public schools teach only one religion, or emphasize one religion. The separation of church and state does not allow agencies of the state – such as public schools – to be hijacked by a particular religion, even if it is the religion of the majority of citizens (I would even say, especially when it is).

If this were allowed, then a religion could then use its privileged position to compete unfairly with other religions, and the result would be the abolition of religious freedom. The choice of religion would then no longer be a free one. Children would be led to one religion. Rather than complete information on all religious options, necessary to make an educated choice between religions, children would have a one-sided view on religion.

For the benefit of their students, private schools are of course also advised to teach all religions. But since many of these private schools are religious schools, it is only fair to allow them to focus on their own religion. It would indeed be an unjustified encroachment on religious freedom if religions and churches were not allowed to organize their own system of education according to their own rules (even if it includes teaching that Darwin was wrong and that Dinosaurs and men walked the surface of the earth together – but evidently they wouldn’t do their pupils any favors).

As long as parents have a choice to send their children to such a religious school or to another, public school, then there is no problem. But this must be a real choice of course. If the public schools are of inferior quality, or difficult to reach, then there isn’t really a choice.

School prayer is quite another matter. Praying is not learning, and the demand of inclusiveness mentioned above does not appear to work in the case of prayer. Starting lessons with different prayers of different religions seems awkward. Hence, school prayer in public schools looks like the kind of hijack that is contrary to the separation of state and church.

Limiting Free Speech (13): Chilling Effects; Indirect, Covert and Non-Governmental Limits on Freedom of Speech

Free speech is normally limited by dictatorial governments.

  • They imprison, threaten, deport or kill dissidents.
  • They take away their livelihood, put them in psychiatric hospitals, indoctrinate or “re-educate” them.
  • They use propaganda.
  • They prohibit opposition political parties, demonstrations, rallies and assemblies.
  • They censor the media, kill or imprison journalists and create media-monopolies.
  • Etc.

But also more democratic governments, although in general supportive of human rights, may decide that in some cases limits on the freedom of speech are justifiable for the protection of other rights, for example in cases such as

  • Hate speech
  • Holocaust denial
  • Pornography
  • Libel
  • Etc.

All these limitations are initiated by governments and usually imposed through force and/or law. There are, however, other types of limitations, taking place in a less obvious manner, covert, indirect and sometimes even when we are not aware of them. Many of these limits are not government limits. They are imposed by citizens on other citizens, or even by citizens on themselves. And I’m not thinking in the first instance of those types of group pressure that are just as obvious as state pressure, like religious fundamentalists scaring people into submission by acts of terror or other threats. This type of pressure, which I call citizen tyranny, is not covert or indirect. On the contrary. Its goal is maximum publicity, in order to maximize fear and submission.

What I’m thinking of here are cases such as these:

Social pressure

In the Netherlands, the former MP and critic of Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, was forced out of her home after her neighbors managed to convince a judge that the value of their property suffered from her presence. (As a public critic of Islam, she received death threats and was considered a likely target of terrorist attacks, hence the “house value problem”). After such events, people will obviously think twice before engaging in public debate, starting with but not ending with Hirsi Ali herself.

This is called a “chilling-effect“. Certain events lead to suppression of subsequent acts of speech because of the fear that the perceived possible consequences of the subsequent acts will be similar to the real consequences following the said events.

A chilling effect causes ripples in society: one event leads to limitations of speech in other, unrelated events; one person’s problems with speech cause other people, who have no connection with this person, to reconsider their speech acts. The word “to chill” means to freeze, to harden, to instill fear.

Self-censorship

In the U.S., post 9-11, the media have often indulged in self-censorship, inspired by patriotism or rather by the fear of not being recognized as a patriot during the so-called war on terror. Solidarity with the government at war and the commander-in-chief, or the fear of being perceived as unpatriotic, appeasers, “useful idiots” or even open allies of the enemy, has turned many into uncritical supporters of the war. These people actually limited their own freedom of speech. They did not say what they wanted to say or thought they should say, for fear of appearing un-American. Something similar happened during the McCarthy era.

Political correctness

Political correctness can also lead to chilling effects. Certain words such as “nigger” should not be used. There’s a good example in the movie “The Human Stain”, based on the novel by Philip Roth, in which Anthony Hopkins plays a professor who is dismissed after calling some of his absent students “spooks”. It turns out that these students are African Americans and that the word “spook” doesn’t only mean “ghost”. (Ironically, the professor turns out to be of African American descent himself). Also, certain causes for certain events should not be mentioned (for example the fact that some of the problems of the African American community are not caused by racism). Etc.

Political correctness can also result from fear. In this era of growing Islamic fundamentalism in multicultural western societies, the fear of causing insult and moral outrage, of creating divisions in society, can lead to chilling effects.

Other causes of limitations on the freedom of speech

  • Media monopolies (which do not only exist in dictatorial regimes) stifle independent and minority voices.
  • Party financing systems can make it very hard for certain voices to be heard in political debate and can make some voices (i.e. donor voices) louder than they should be.
  • The profit principle: media outlets only publish what they consider to be (possibly) profitable. This also stifles certain voices.
  • Etc.

Limiting Free Speech (12): Obscenity

The words “obscenity” (from the Latin obscenus meaning “foul, repulsive, detestable”), “salaciousness” or “salacity”, are legal terms describing acts or cases of speech that are prohibited because they offend a society’s prevalent sexual morality. As such, these prohibitions are limitations of the freedom of speech and often include censorship of obscene material, punishment for obscene acts or distribution of obscene material etc. The question is whether such prohibitions are legitimate in light of the importance of the right to free speech.

What is or is not obscene differs from society to society, from individual to individual, and from time to time. What used to be considered obscene may today be banal. This makes it difficult to establish what is and is not obscene, and this difficulty has consequences for those wishing to make rules prohibiting obscenity.

Justice Potter Stewart of the Supreme Court of the United States famously stated:

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced but I know it when I see it.

The Supreme Court does use a somewhat more precise rule, called the “Miller test“, to establish if something is obscene and hence doesn’t merit protection under the First Amendment:

  • whether ‘the average person, applying contemporary community standards’ would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest,
  • whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and
  • whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

Most forms of obscenity aren’t speech: walking naked in a shopping mall, for instance, or performing sex acts in public toilets, aren’t acts intended to transfer information or opinions. Hence they cannot be protected by the right to free speech (whether or not these acts need to be protected at all, and how, is not the topic of this post).

Obscenity can, with some credibility, claim protection under freedom of speech when it is in the form of printed material (including publication on the internet), because then it is a form of speech. In many cases, obscenity in such a form can be equated to pornography (although not all pornography is obscene and not all obscenity is pornographic). In many jurisdictions, this kind of obscenity is also traditionally considered as a justified limit on freedom of speech. But is it really justified?

In a previous post in this series, I discussed pornography and the possibility to limit the freedom of speech of pornographers. I concluded that this possibility exists in certain cases, namely those cases of pornography that cause harm. For instance, child pornography, pornography in which violence or force is used against the participants in the pornographic material, pornography that is associated with human trafficking etc.

The rule should indeed be: does it harm anyone? Whether it appeals to the “prurient interest”, or whether it lacks “some artistic interest”, is essentially irrelevant. Does it cause harm in the sense of rights violations? Of course, this kind of harm isn’t always easy to establish. It is in the case of child pornography. But many feminists make a convincing case that pornography, even pornography depicting consenting adults and consumed by consenting adults, dehumanizes women, solidifies mentalities in which women are second class citizens, and glorifies violence against women.

However, depicting violence is not necessarily the same thing as incitement of violence. The latter causes harm, the former not necessarily (otherwise we would have to ban all detective stories).

Limiting Free Speech (11): The Right to Libel, Defame and Slander

A libelous statement (or a defamatory or slanderous statement, which are more or less synonymous) is a lie, a statement that can be disproven by facts (and therefore not merely an opinion), which has a direct impact on someone’s reputation and image. This impact results from the public nature of the lie and the likelihood that some people believe the lie is in fact not a lie.

Most systems of law provide legal measures to deter libel and provide compensation (financial or otherwise) for libel once it has been committed.

A related but slightly different problem is the public revelation of private information which is not of public concern. This information is not necessarily false, but may be embarrassing and hence may have the same effect on someone’s reputation as libel has.

A lie as such should of course not be prohibited, and is not a sufficient reason to limit freedom of speech. Neither should the revelation of private information. Sometimes, privacy is less important than other values. Regular readers of this blog will remember the rules for limiting free speech set forth in the introductory post of this series. Some rights can harm other rights – in this case freedom of speech and privacy – in which case one of the rights has to be limited for the sake of the other right.

This choice between rights is never easy, but one rule could be the relative harm done by limiting one right or another. If the harm caused by free speech is simply embarrassment, a slightly deflated reputation, or a feeling of dishonor, then the case for limiting free speech isn’t very strong. However, many so-called libelous statements do not only cause embarrassment. People whose reputation is destroyed, either by lies or by the disclosure of irrelevant private information that is of no public concern, may lose their livelihood. So the right that is affected by libel is not only the right to privacy, but also the right to a certain minimum living standard, the right to work etc.

Limiting Free Speech (8): The Fairness Doctrine, Limiting or Improving Speech?

The Fairness Doctrine was a policy of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – currently no longer applicable – that required television stations to deal with issues in a fair and balanced way, and to present contrasting viewpoints and give them all some air time (but not necessarily equal air time). The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the Fairness Doctrine.

Self-censorship

The FCC, when headed by Reagan appointees, abolished the policy because

the intrusion by government into the content of programming occasioned by the enforcement of [the Fairness Doctrine] restricts the journalistic freedom of broadcasters

and hence “chills speech” and violates the First Amendment. In order to avoid to go out and find contrasting viewpoints on every story, some journalists will supposedly refrain from covering some stories. Hence you have a de facto, not de jure, limit on free speech resulting from self-censorship.

What scarcity?

Another reason given for abolishing the doctrine was that the “scarcity argument” is no longer valid. In the old days, when the number of media outlets was limited, the public couldn’t go elsewhere to find other viewpoints, and the Fairness Doctrine could be justified. Today, however, with the internet, blogosphere, cable and satellite television, this is no longer the case. If anything, there’s too much punditry.

Public support

There’s some truth in all of this, but still I think there are good reasons for reinstating the Fairness Doctrine.

  • First of all, the claim that it limits free speech is somewhat awkward. How can a rule that multiplies the number of views and arguments that are represented in the media, be called a limit on the freedom of speech? If journalists will not cover a topic in order to avoid having to go and find opposing views, than this is either because there are no opposing views (if there are, they will quickly assert themselves) or because the journalists are lazy. After all, why do we have Google?
  • Secondly, there’s public support for the Fairness Doctrine. A recent poll by Scott Rasmussen asked whether the government should require all radio and television stations to offer equal amounts of liberal and conservative political commentary. 47 percent said “yes”, 39 percent were opposed.
  • Thirdly, the scarcity argument is still valid, albeit in another way. Sophisticated audiences, tech savvy, with knowledge of where to find information and enough spare time to do so, will not benefit from a reinstated Fairness Doctrine. They will make sure that they get their balanced information from different sources if one source isn’t balanced. But other people will benefit, in particular those who rely on one or a few media-outlets for their information. Some of these people may be burdened by low levels of education and poverty, and hence are especially vulnerable to the effects of one-sided reporting.
  • And finally, it is common knowledge that the quality of public debate and information in the U.S. is not what it could be. What we hear and see on television, radio and the internet is often no more than shrill partisan shouting. The issues are oversimplified, nuances get lost, sound bites rule, and much of the time the really important issues are pushed back by sensational trivia or personal attacks. A requirement to air opposing views would temper this and would improve the quality of political debate.

Democracy rests on opinions: opinions of candidates on policies, opinions of the people on candidates and policies, opinions on proposed policies and on executed policies. It’s therefore of the utmost importance that these opinions have some kind of value and aren’t knee-jerk impulses, prejudices, intuitions based on personal attacks, etc. Only well-considered opinions are good opinions and well-considered opinions are those that are tested in discussion and that survive as many counter-arguments as possible (see here).

Clearly, the media have a responsibility in this respect and have to present the struggle between arguments. They shouldn’t just be the mouthpiece of one side of the argument. They are indeed the “fourth estate” and are necessary for the functioning of a democracy.

We shouldn’t forget that opinions are not readily available. They are the result of thinking, studying, deliberation and discussion. If we want the people to have opinions, and preferably well-considered opinions, then we have to create frameworks for debate. We shouldn’t allow democratic elections – or even opinion polls and referenda – to be a simple system for tapping opinions that aren’t based on debate, or that often don’t even exist as opinions when they have to be tapped.

Limiting Free Speech (7): Violence in the Media and Real Life Violence

Conventional wisdom says that violent films, violent video games, violent song lyrics or even news stories about violence, lead to an increase in violent crime. On the basis of this causal link, some argue that the right to free speech of movie makers and others should be limited and they should be forced to show restraint when depicting violence. And if they don’t, some measure of benevolent censorship should be applied. The use of movie ratings, which do not limit freedom of speech, isn’t enough. It’s useful to protect children – probably the most impressionable part of humanity – but if violence in movies incites real violence, there’s no reason to think that this is only the case for children.

Is this conventional wisdom true? It probably is, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that limiting free speech is the right kind of remedy. Many studies have pointed out that media violence exposure increases aggressive behavior because

  • it renders viewers insensitive,
  • excites them,
  • changes their moral compass (especially in the case of young viewers),
  • and gives them ideas (people, also adults, learn through imitation).

However, another study claimed that movie violence might temper the real thing:

On days with a high audience for violent movies, violent crime is lower. And crime is not merely delayed until after the credits run. In the hours after theatres close — from midnight to 6 a.m. the next day — violent crimes dropped. Violent films prevent violent crime by attracting would-be assailants and keeping them cloistered in darkened, alcohol-free environs. Instead of fueling up at bars and then roaming around looking for trouble, potential criminals pass the prime hours for mayhem eating popcorn and watching celluloid villains slay in their stead. “You’re taking a lot of violent people off the streets and putting them inside movie theaters,” said one of the authors of the study, Gordon Dahl, an economist at the University of California, San Diego. “In the short run, if you take away violent movies, you’re going to increase violent crime.” Over the last decade the showing of violent films in the United States has decreased assaults by an average of about 1,000 a weekend, or 52,000 a year. (source)

Such things are difficult to prove. Who can say that a movie is the cause of a particular crime? And who can redo the events to see what would have happened had the criminal not seen the movie? Or the other way around: if you claim that moviegoers forgo activities that have a greater tendency to encourage mayhem, like drinking and drug use, how can you prove that they would have been more likely to have committed a crime had they not visited the cinema?

Any act of violence has multiple and complex causes. One person can sit through hours of violent movies and remain his own calm self. Another person turns violent because of one wrong word. He or she may be burdened by low self-esteem as a result of years of childhood negligence, poverty etc. The problems is: if there have to be limits on the freedom of expression of artists, these have to be the same for all viewers. You can’t check at the ticket stand of a cinema if a person has violent tendencies that may be aggravated by a violent movie. You just have to cut away the violent scenes from the movie. And then you’ll always be overshooting (pardon the expression) because you’re protecting many viewers who don’t need protection since they will not be incited to violence.

But better safe than sorry and cut the violence anyway? I don’t think so. Freedom of expression and artistic expression are extremely important. It’s likely that other measures, short of censorship, and intervention earlier in the causal chain of violence will be more successful in stopping or limiting violence.

Limiting Free Speech (6): A Right Not to be Offended or Insulted?

In the previous post in this series I concluded that insulting or offending speech should not be forbidden, and is not a legitimate reason to limit the right to freedom of speech. Such limits are possible in general but should be exceptional given the importance of the freedom of speech. In the current post, I’ll flesh out the argument against limits on offending speech.

Offending speech is a slightly broader category than derogatory speech. The latter can be said to imply the intention to offend, ridicule or belittle, but offending speech in general does not imply this intention. People can be – and regularly are – offended by speech (or actions) that is not meant to offend.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there is such a thing as a right not to be offended. Such a right would create a duty not to offend. This duty goes much further than the duties normally assumed to be generated by tolerance. Tolerance forces people to abstain from

  • interfering with other people’s beliefs or practices
  • suppressing other people’s beliefs or practices
  • persecuting people with other beliefs or practices.

The focus is on the duties to abstain from actively interfering, suppressing or persecuting (or coercing in perhaps other ways). Tolerance forces us to leave people alone, even when – or rather especially when – we dislike, disapprove of or feel insulted by these people, because only then will we be tempted to intervene. We will not be tempted to intervene with people who leave us indifferent, in which case tolerance and the duties that arise from it are irrelevant.

A presumed right not to be offended can therefore be thought of as an exception to the duties of tolerance. When we accept such a right, we in fact claim that this right trumps some of our duties of tolerance in certain cases, namely in the cases when other people offend us. We should not tolerate offense, and the right to free speech of the offenders (of those who cause offense) should be limited by our right not to be offended. I say “some of our duties” because I don’t think that many people would claim that a right not to be offended should make it possible to go beyond limiting free speech, and should for example allow us to persecute offenders (some Muslims went this far in the case of the Muhammad cartoons).

If we assume that there is a right not to be offended and that this right has the consequences for tolerance which I have described, then we’ll quickly run into some insurmountable difficulties – and these difficulties will be a reason to reject the right not to be offended.

What are these difficulties? Let’s make a difference between active and passive offense. We can offend others by merely having certain beliefs or ways of lives. This passive offense does not result from an intention to offend. Active offense takes place when

  1. we knowingly and intentionally seek to offend others, by for example making certain derogatory claims about their beliefs and ways of lives, AND
  2. these others take offense.

If we focus on passive offense, then we must accept that it cannot be in itself offensive or disrespectful to have certain beliefs or ways of lives. Offense should entail the active intention to insult and cause offense. If we do not accept this, then we have to conclude that a right not to be offended triggers the duty to change beliefs or ways of life. And that is obviously outrageous.

Now, regarding active offense, the issues are, at first sight, much clearer. However, the problem is that there is no clear distinction between active and passive offense. It can be part of my beliefs and way of life that I should subject all views to rigorous criticism. And such criticism can cause offense. I know this, but still insist that I should criticize. Hence, I create active offense. A right not to be offended would then imply the duty to change my views and way of life, again outrageously.

Or it can be part of my beliefs that everybody should hear the word of God (my God). This as well can be insulting to adherents of another religion, who consider me to be a sinner, a false messenger leading humanity astray. A right not to be offended would again force me to deny myself.

Another problem with a possible right not to be offended is the fact that everything can be considered offensive by some people. It is impossible to predict what will or will not be considered offensive by someone, somewhere. A duty not to offend would ultimately lead to a duty to remain silent.

So, if offense is to be prohibited, and freedom of speech limited, then the only options would seem to be:

  • remain silent
  • force people to change their beliefs and ways of life
  • force people to be hypocrites.

Any one of these options is a nightmare. And the second one is self-contradictory because the rationale behind the proposal for a right not to be offended is precisely the necessity of respect for people’s beliefs and ways of life.

So it seems that offense and disrespect are a necessary price to pay for freedom of speech and the right to live your life according to you own choices and beliefs. However, this doesn’t mean that offense, ridicule, belittlement and disrespect are virtues. We shouldn’t make them illegal, but they shouldn’t be cherished either. They make it more difficult to have a rational debate on important subjects. They poison the debate and make it difficult to argue and persuade. So there are good reasons to avoid them, even if there are no good reasons to prohibit them.

Limiting Free Speech (5): Pornography

First of all, whatever we think of pornography, we should admit that it is a kind of speech, just as cross-burning, flag-burning, hate speech etc., and hence it is at least possible that it falls under the protection of the right to free speech. The U.S. Supreme Court has at different occasions decided that pornography should be protected under the First Amendment:

There are two types of pornography that receive no First Amendment protection ’97 obscenity and child pornography. The First Amendment generally protects pornography that does not fall into one of these two categories. (source)

Other jurisdictions have also protected pornography.

Violence IN pornography

The quote above already indicates that an overall protection of pornography widely defined is not acceptable and that certain limits on the freedom of speech of pornographers are possible. According to the rules set forth in the introductory post of this series a right can be limited if it violates other rights or the rights or others. This is obviously the case of any child pornography or pornography in which violence or force is used against the participants, such as certain kinds of extreme sadomasochistic porn.

Another reason why there can be force and violence in pornography is human trafficking. Many girls are forced to participate in porn movies because they are victims of human trafficking. They are modern slaves in the sex industry.

Violence BECAUSE OF pornography

There is still some discussion in the scientific community as to whether pornography, and especially hardcore and violent pornography, promotes sexual violence in society. This is not easy to establish because the interactions of mass media and human behavior are complex. If pornography promotes sexual violence, we have another justification for limiting its distribution.

The weight of evidence is accumulating that intensive exposure to soft-core pornography desensitises men’s attitude to rape, increases sexual callousness and shifts their preferences towards hard-core pornography. Similarly, the evidence is now strong that exposure to violent pornography increases men’s acceptance of rape myths and of violence against women. It also increases men’s tendencies to be aggressive towards women and is correlated with the reported incidence of rape. Many sex offenders claim they used pornography to stimulate themselves before committing their crimes. (source)

In Australia, the federal government has tended to relax its controls on pornography since 1970. Different states have, however, implemented these changes to varying extents and, as a result, have unwittingly conducted an interesting experiment on the effect of pornography. Queensland, the most conservative state, has maintained the strictest controls on pornography and has a comparatively low rate of rape reports. By contrast, South Australia, the most liberal state in relation to pornography, has seen escalating reports of rape since the early 1970s:

Businesses spend billions of dollars on advertising, in the belief that media can and do have an effect on human behaviour. We support and encourage the arts, in the belief that novels, films and such have the capacity to uplift and enhance human society; in other words, that the arts have a capacity to influence people. Yet we are expected to believe that the increasing tide of pornography does not affect attitudes to women. (source)

The image of women in pornography

One reason why porn can cause violence in society is the image of women that is created through pornography. In some porn, rape is explicitly legitimized, but in all kinds of porn women are depicted as constantly and immediately available for sex. We can assume that long term consumption of porn from an early age onwards, creates the opinion that it is not necessary for men to establish whether a female partner consents to having sex since porn tells them that such consent is automatic. In real life, of course, this is not the case and hence there will be rape.

Porn also objectifies women. It turns women into objects of sexual desire and sexual use. Objectification of women is of course not limited to pornography. Advertising also regularly uses women as means or tools or objects. The objectification of women means dehumanization. And there are more things you can do to a non-human than to a human. Objectification therefore can promote violence against women. To the extent that is does, we have another justification for restrictions on pornography.

Moreover, pornography shapes and reinforces a male-dominant view of sexuality and of gender relations. It’s not far-fetched to claim that pornography contributes to gender discrimination, machismo, sexism, paternalism etc.

All this is the case not only for violent porn but for porn in general and could therefore justify restrictions on non-violent porn.

Different kinds of restrictions

There are different kinds of pornography, different circumstances in which it is distributed, and different people respond differently to pornography. So restrictions on pornography may differ according to circumstances. People with a history of sexual violence are more obvious targets of a ban on the use of hardcore and violent porn than other people. Young people, for the reasons given above, may have more restrictions, including non-violent porn. Pornography in a library is not the same thing as pornography on the streets…

Soft porn or “artistic porn” should be treated differently. An all-out ban on all kinds of pornography would be just as unwise as an all-out protection. Many classic works of art would have to be forbidden if no pornography were allowed. We have to admit that porn can be art and art can be pornographic.