Friday, December 02, 2005

When Can Free Speech be Limited?

In response to my previous post, Andy Wheeler asks the following excellent question:

Hello - I enjoyed your post but how do reconcile free speech with sexual harassment laws, or lying to cause a panic (yelling fire in a crowded theatre)?

This is the key issue that those far more knowledgeable than myself have been wrestling with for decades. I do believe that in a free society people have the right to express their views, no matter how offensive they might be. Yet free speech, like any other right, is not an absolute. In the examples you cite, the speech in question ceases to be the expression of an opinion and becomes a malevolent assault on the rights of others. That, in my view, is when speech ceases to be protected.

I do believe that Islamists should be allowed to preach their views in Western societies, no matter how hate-filled and anti-Semitic their remarks often are. The place where I would draw the line is when that speech turns into an open incitement to violence and terrorism. A radical Salafist preacher praising the 9/11 atrocities, as vile and disgusting as decent people find such sentiments, should be tolerated. If that same preacher encourages his followers to go stage a 9/11 of their own, then he has crossed the line.

Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson put it best in his dissent in the 1949 decision Terminiello v. City of Chicago:

This Court has gone far toward accepting the doctrine that civil liberty means the removal of all restraints from these crowds and that all local attempts to maintain order are impairments of the liberty of the citizen. The choice is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either. There is danger that, if the Court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.


Unfortunately, there will always be gray areas, no matter where the line is drawn. That's why we have courts. Still, I would draw the distinction between speech that merely expresses an opinion, and that intended to deny the rights of others, through either harassment, instigating physical harm, or inciting violence.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Ed Merwin, Jr. said...

Dave I applaud you for trying to clarify some limits of free speech. But, correct me if I am wrong, but your "when can free speech be limited" seems to endorse, generally speaking, campus speech codes. These PC efforts have done much to discourage free intelectual discussion on campuses.

9:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like how you portray all muslims to be terrorists so discreetly. Just wondering...did you know that the other 99% of muslims are not terrorists? Yeah. Thought you should know.

4:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

dude not all muslims r terrorists. this is so totally biased. i know they have like a bad rep, but its only cuz of those idiots on 9/11. the whole damn religom is based on peace. did any of you know that? sounds hard to believe, doesn't it? its kinda sad how a handful of extremist wannabe muslims can destroy the image of an entire peaceful muslim population worldwide. CNN and Lou Dobbs and Fox and all those news channels only show whats going on with the radical/extremist muslims. Have you ever seen a special on peace loving muslims? I don't think so. You wanna see real muslims? Try seeing the ones who actually live by the Quran. My friend is a muslim, and she gets harassed everyday at school, which is so bogus, dude. This is like segregation. except its with muslims. Didn't media back then show blacks as subhuman? what the heck do you think are they doing with muslims now? I SEE A SIMILARITY...

4:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dave you seem like an literate person. Why haven't you read and researched into the "Islamists" as you have labeled? Talking about something you apparently have no idea over can make you seem like an ignorant and prejudiced person. Maybe you should know the greetings that Muslims (people who follow the religion Islam, not Islamists) say *Salaam* means peace. A full translation of the Arabic greeting is "May peace be upon you". A religion which tells to greets each other so kindly must be a religion of terror filled teachings right? Makes SUCH perfect sense.

Always know there are good and bad people who follow religions. Some use it as their placard and some actually follow it. Its the people who are bad - not the religion on whole. Check yourself before you wreck yourself.

2:46 PM  

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