I Unequivocally Support the Right to Speech I Support the Right To
Nobody is a bigger supporter of the right to free speech than I am…as long as I get to define what counts as free speech.
That, at least, seems to be the message of the day. Brandeis University President Fred Lawrence avows the university’s “unyielding commitment to free speech,” but imposes a restraining order on a student journalist for writing a critique of another student’s tweets expressing her lack of remorse about the killing of two NYPD officers.
Too many people to count, including President Obama and a number of commenters here, take the pusillanimous stance of “I support free speech, but people should
censor themselves exercise good judgement in how they speak.” How well does that idea travel to other rights?
I support the right against self-incrimination, but people should exercise good judgement in how they remain silent.
I support the right of freedom religion, but people should exercise good judgement in how they worship.
I support the right to peaceably assemble, but people should exercise good judgement in how they non-violently protest.
I support the right to vote, but people should exercise good judgement in how they vote.
Good judgement is better than bad judgement, but that’s circular, so on one level, “people should exercise good jdugement” is meaningless. But on another level it implies a substantive standard that makes the exercise of the right legitimate if it meets that standard, and illegitimate, or at least of dubious legitimacy, if it does not.
Now ask yourself, who do you trust to authoritatively determine if you have met the standard of good judgement in your exercise of your rights?
Let’s not play make-believe here. When people say others should exercise “good judgement” about their exercise of speech, they mean “others should follow my judgement about what’s good or not.” But why should I allow your judgement to control my religious expression, my peaceful protesting, my silence, or my speech? Are you willing to submit yourself to my judgement about your exercise of your rights?
And here is the crucial questions: to what authoritative office do you want to give that power to determine whether your exercise of your rights meets the standard of good judgement?
Hate speech is bad judgement in the exercise of free speech, right? A third of Americans support hate speech laws, so if we can get just another fifth to do so, we can appropriately ban it right?
Again, whose judgement do we trust? We’re assured by a French blogger that Charlie Hebdo’s attacks on Islam were not hate speech because they were never prosecuted for hate speech. But it was hate speech; our French blogger just doesn’t see that because she’s not Muslim. Do we trust the judgement of a government that punishes anti-black cartoons but not anti-Muslim ones? Do we trust the judgement of those who would insist that we not criticize or show images of Mohammed?
Maybe we trust Tanya Cohen. She, after all, affirms “the sacrosanct right to freedom of speech,” so when she assures us that “the right to freedom of speech comes with great responsibility,” and that we “are not talking about censorship,” surely her distinctions between free speech and non-free speech are grounded in a reliable judgement?
And so we can be confident that her judgement that the sculpture of a Klan member constructed with newspaper articles reporting racial violence was not an art exhibit, but an “art exhibit,” not a critique of racism, but a disgusting “KKK display,” “illegal racial discrimination under international human rights law,” and “a hate crime in any civilized country” for which the artist (or perhaps “artist”) should ” be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law under human rights legislation.”
The so-called “artist” (an art prof, in fact) has made clear his non-racist intent, but as Cohen makes clear, intent is not relevant to judgement.
[U]nder international human rights law, anything which offends or insults ethnic minorities is illegal, even if it is not intended to be. What this means it that the KKK display at the University of Iowa constitutes illegal racial discrimination under international human rights law which the United States has ratified.
Dubious about Cohen’s judgement? Well surely we can trust the UN, which she reminds us “has repeatedly stressed that none of these laws restrict, limit, or infringe upon freedom of speech – as a matter of fact, they protect freedom of speech.”
So now that we’ve established that supporters of free speech are competent to define what is and is not free speech without impinging on free speech, what kind of penalties should we impose? Severe ones, according to Cohen.
Anyone guilty of hate speech – which should carry criminal penalties of 25 years to life – should be sent to special prisons designed to re-educate them and to instill values of tolerance, freedom, democracy, and human rights in them.
I’m not sure just how bad was the judgement behind that sculpture. Does the “artist” deserve 25 years in prison or life? Is his meek submission to the claim of bad judgement–“I am aware that, due to my thoughtless action, I caused pain”–a mitigating factor?
How bad was the judgement behind the Charlie Hebdo cartoons? Did they deserve death, albeit preferably meted out by the objective and impersonal hand of the state, or should they only have received 25 years in prison?
We must, after all, exercise good judgement.
[Front Page Image source: Wikimedia Commons.]