Free Speech Absolutism: “Sunlight is the Best Disinfectant”

January 15, 2015

Just a week after the horrors in France, it seems clear that many of us have much to learn. France is punishing comedians for expressing points of view with which the government disagrees, and Pope Francis is defending the notion that speech which criticises religion should not be allowed . This is sad but hardly surprising. European attitudes about free speech have been for some time more restrictive than they ought to be, including laws that prevent "hate speech" or questioning the holocaust. In some commonwealth countries and in the tradition of the UK, laws prevent even truthful criticism of others that might "harm" their reputations (whereas defamation in the US requires the speech to be false to be defamatory, not necessarily so in the UK, Australia, and even Canada). In sum, the US experience with free speech is significantly different than elsewhere, and I believe that it serves as a better model for speech and its great power to change the world.

It is true that some speech can harm, and we have a moral duty as individuals to avoid harming others, but the harms caused by speech can be addressed in most instances with more speech. There are positive social forces available to punish those who abuse their speech and use it to harm. Public shaming and censure are perfectly appropriate tools available to us to punish those who have harassed or otherwise harmed others through abusing their speech rights. The law is a dangerous recourse, whether publicly or privately employed because the force of the state, backed by police and military, courts and jails, is significantly different than the force of public opinion. When states have the ability to drag people into courts for expressing their views, then censorship is likely. Unlike societal pressures, which do not have the power of police, courts, jails, etc., behind them as a method of suppression, states can impose specific ideologies through these mechanisms.  This is an unacceptable threat to freedom of inquiry. The power represented by a military or police is different in kind from the power of words whose target is minds and proper modes the employment of reasoned argument. That France is now using its police and judicial system to punish speakers is testament to the abuse of power for which the law affords opportunities and undue temptation.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said "sunlight is the best disinfectant" and in my opinion, this is true. When we seek to suppress through state mechanisms speech which offends, or even that which harms, we drive further underground those who seek to do harm and perhaps push them toward committing worse harms, meanwhile we fail to publicly address the weakness of the arguments or cowardice of the characters of those who would harm others. Better to keep it in the open, show through our speech the errors or immorality of those who attempt or commit harm, and let the broader public as well as history sort out who is in the right. In the end, the best ideas do (generally) win, and the better arguments prevail. Censure, but don't censor.



#1 DougEBarr on Thursday January 15, 2015 at 10:19am

“Free speech absolutism” gives everyone the right to disinfect everyone else with their “sunlight”. It would be great if the outcome was a completely healthy, united humanity but the more likely outcome is the blinded beating the blinded to death. For humanity to survive we have to be united. So if we can agree it matters we survive we can’t tolerate speech that divides humanity. Religions are just some of the speeches that cost humanity unit. If we had any common sense we would discard them all and allow the healing to begin.

#2 David R. Koepsell on Thursday January 15, 2015 at 10:47am

Not tolerating hateful speech is different than suppressing it through the state, as I argue. The latter is impermissible, the former is required and addressed through speech.

#3 Benjamin Radford on Saturday January 17, 2015 at 9:20am

Interesting and provocative as always. My concern is the sometimes-hasty invocation of “censorship” and threat to “free speech” that appear in these news stories and blogs (not necessarily this one). For example though I agree that the arrest for “defending terrorism” of comedian Dieudonné (mentioned in the second sentence, though not by name) is unfair and absurd, it’s not clear that Dieudonné‘s opinions, views, and ideas have actually been suppressed or censored by the French government or anyone else, as suggested here.  Dieudonné M’bala M’bala has been active and public since the 1990s, and it took me less than 20 seconds to find hundreds of videos and comments by Dieudonné online. The French government has failed spectacularly to keep the comedian’s views and opinions from the public.

It’s true that Dieudonné has been arrested a few times, sued for (mostly anti-Jewish) defamation, and been banned from performing in a few places. Being banned from performing a show is not de facto censorship: Dozens of artists including Madonna, the Rolling Stones, Lady Gaga, Snoop Dogg, and Guns N Roses have been banned from performing at events for one reason or another. Being prevented from performing in a venue or city does not violate the artist or performer’s right to free speech.

#4 David Koepsell (Guest) on Sunday January 18, 2015 at 11:30am

I think that the force of the state and courts as well as possible jail is rather clearly a form of censorship post hoc with the intention of chilling speech in the future. It’s just not a “prior restraint,” in the First Amendment jurisprudence sense.

#5 Randy on Monday January 19, 2015 at 10:33pm

Thank you. While I currently default to favoring free speech, I have supported hate speech laws (censorship and punishment) in the past.  In analyzing it, I get stuck between the “free speech rights” argument which I’m not sure I buy even though I’m supporting it and depending on it, and the fact that speech necessarily causes changes in the recipient’s brain/mind, and sometimes that leads to action, and sometimes that action is bad, and sometimes it is very bad.  I believe that (due to how things work on relevant scales) this is entirely deterministic, although complexity means we may never have the capacity to predict it.  Do we need some sort of “risk-based” model rather than a “rights-based” model?

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