June 18, 2015

Rebutting Accusations of Free Speech Absolutism

free expression and censorship
The subject of free speech and when it is acceptable to place limits on it is a difficult one. Opinions differ, and emotions often run high. Not surprisingly, one of the many ways that discussions on this subject can break down is through name calling (i.e., one party becomes frustrated and begins mischaracterizing the another party's position with inaccurate labels). One of the the more common accusations is that of absolutism. "You're just a free speech absolutist!"

A free speech absolutist is someone who will accept no restrictions on free speech whatsoever. In order to be a free speech absolutist, one would have to argue that individuals should be able to say anything without penalty. To keep things simple, I'm referring to legal restrictions and penalties here. At least in the U.S., most of the efforts to restrict speech come in the form of social pressures (e.g., shaming) rather than legal sanctions. I'm generally opposed to the application of these social pressures to restrict speech because I think that it is more effective to combat the expression of bad ideas with better ideas than to try to suppress them, but I'll save this discussion for other posts.

If we understand what it means to be a free speech absolutist in the context of legal restrictions on speech, it should be rather obvious how easy it is to rebut accusations of being one. All someone would need to do is find a single example of a case where he or she would agree to restrict speech. If the accused can point to even one such example, the accusation falls apart.

Here are a few examples of scenarios where I am inclined to support legal restrictions on free speech. This list is not exhaustive. But again, it does not have to be in order to effectively rebut accusations of absolutism.
  • The classic yelling "fire" in a crowded theater when there is no fire. Doing so places others in danger, as the speaker is inciting panic and significantly raising the odds that someone will be injured by trying to escape an imaginary threat.
  • An adult initiating a developmentally inappropriate discussion of a sexually graphic nature with your your young child against your wishes. Even without any touching, this seems to cross a line, especially if we imagine that the person doing this is doing so for their own sexual gratification.
  • Speech that clearly involves the incitement of violence. I'm imagining someone exhorting a crowd to take out their anger by murdering members of a particular racial group during a period of civil unrest.
  • Making unambiguous threats of serious harm to others (e.g., "When you come home tonight, I'm going to be waiting in your apartment. I made a copy of your spare key last week, and I'm going to bash your head in with a hammer until I see what the inside of your skull looks like").
Every one of these examples already carries legal penalties. They are examples where we have generally agreed that legal restrictions on speech are appropriate. And I'm okay with there being restrictions placed on these forms of speech. So at least in the context of legal restrictions on free speech, I really don't qualify as a free speech absolutist. Sorry to have to dispel that fantasy.

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