On Defending Free Speech – What is your true rejection?



Murali did his undergraduate degree in molecular biology with a minor in biophysics from the National University of Singapore (NUS). He then changed direction and did his Masters in Philosophy also at NUS. Now, he is currently pursuing a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Warwick.

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66 Responses

  1. Avatar dhex says:

    if we are to destroy culture, nation, religion, belief, stability, the family, your gods, our gods, and everyone’s gods – big and small – the fray must first be filled.Report

      • Avatar dhex in reply to Murali says:

        beliefs are only as powerful as their mass. without mass, it’s just a dude with a crazy sign standing on the side of the road.Report

      • Avatar Murali in reply to Murali says:

        I suppose if you crudely reduced beliefs to the particular neural correlate it might have a mass, but what does the mass of a belief have anything to do with it?Report

      • Avatar dhex in reply to Murali says:


        “what does the mass of a belief have anything to do with it”

        mass means it holds the cultural/political/legal weight required to defend itself. it can also be bullets and stuff, as we’ve seen. when those conditions change, beliefs about those beliefs change.

        shorter version: no one here – or anywhere really – is going to call satirical or even meanspirited attacks on scientology “bigotry”. they might for wiccans (and then probably only because women are involved); but most certainly would not for those canadian ufo cloning people or thelemites.

        they simply do not yet have enough heft to be real, and probably never will.Report

  2. Avatar CK MacLeod says:

    @murali You mean Burt, not Tod, as the author of the five arguments you critique.Report

  3. Avatar CK MacLeod says:

    @murali And I still don’t know what you, Burt, Professor Hanley, and probably Tod, too, mean by “free speech,” though, as I’ve stated, in my view understanding the case for free speech as a case against a policy of suppression of certain types of speech strengthens the argument that goes conventionally under the heading of the “sacredness” of freedom of speech (whatever it is) for us.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to CK MacLeod says:


      While I readily admit that I just can’t really follow your style well enough to have any certainty that I understand you, I think I agreed with your comment on my page–certainly nothing jumped out at me as something I objected to–and I think I agree with you about free speech being a case against a policy of suppressing certain types of speech, with the caveat that “certain types” is a very broad category. That is, if “certain types” is a set that only contains two or three types, then I don’t think the non-suppression case being advanced is actually a free speech case.

      Put another way, I think free speech is a generalized argument against suppression of speech, where such suppression is considered legitimate only for a minimal set of “certain types,” and where those certain types must be justified as exceptions to the general rule.Report

      • @james-hanley We do partly and perhaps significantly agree, Professor, though I don’t think it’s possible to judge the size of legitimately suppressible vs not legitimately suppressible.

        I don’t, however, get what you and some other people found so difficult about that comment (https://ordinary-times.com/blog/2015/01/10/i-unequivocally-support-the-right-to-speech-i-support-the-right-to#comment-975252 ). Most of it consisted of a straightforward discussion of definitions. Any attempt to define terms “puts stress on language” (one might say by definition). It will usually begin with people who have found it easier to sweep the inconsistencies and gaps in their own thinking under a carpet of vague expression. To advance the discussion meaningfully, or to pull back the carpet, requires attention to the facile false assumptions that tack it down, sometimes giving an appearance of undue complexity and strain to an actually very elementary exercise – for example, sorting the field of “free speech” into three sub-fields (conscience, inquiry, expression) and a polarity (positive vs negative freedom).

        The last paragraph of the comment, addressing the current situation, entered into intrinsically more complex, because concrete, territory. I won’t repeat myself or expand upon a discussion that, with the apparent exception of one Mad Rocket Scientist, people found abstruse or “opaque” enough to deserve mockery, but the thought is simple: We do accept a regime of restrictions on kinds of speech (perjury, fraud, fighting words, etc.), and it is somewhat inconceivable that we wouldn’t. So “freedom of speech” is some kind of contraction standing for a more complex set of understandings – and, arguably, for what amounts to a regime entailing numerous restrictions and types of restriction. This last is quite obvious in France and Europe generally, where not only, e.g, perjury, fraud, conspiracy, and direct incitement to violence are treated automatically as negatively consequential “speech acts,” but “hate speech” and other types of expression (wearing niqab in public places, using Nazi symbols) may also be subject to indictment.

        My main point of agreement with you is, I think, that we both understand the case for this regime we call “freedom of speech” to be clearest, and perhaps strongest or most persuasive, when put up against alternatives entailing heightened policing of (to be determined) offensive speech. I suspect you may also agree that there’s more to be said for the positive case than either Murali or Likko put forward. (I personally disagree with Murali’s use of Hume, though I will acknowledge that he is hardly alone with it.) Either way, even if we have difficulty sorting out or defending or adding to Burt Likko’s arguments for freedom of speech (somewhat narrowly conceived and only vaguely defined), we may remain sure we don’t want a new Office of the Censor empowered to punish and deter insults to the Prophet or other statements deemed offensive to particular religious and other sensibilities.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:


        To use @murali’s word (though he suggested there is a practical alternative to this claim: that supporting “completely free speech” is a practically viable option as well), in practice there is only “free-ish” speech. Speech in America is certainly only freeish (though perhaps on the free end of freeish compared to mall countries with freeish speech – my preference would be “substantially free”). The professor is quite right that Americans on average support only freeish speech, not completely free speech.

        Perhaps some in America really do support truly “completely free speech,” but most support a regime of exceptions. What you’ll see is an associated regime of argument that the regime of exceptions supported by those who fashion themselves as champions of completely free speech (but who in fact support only freeish speech, though a relatively free variety of freeish speech) – that that regime of exceptions doesn’t contain any True Exceptions to what should truly count as Free Speech. “My exceptions are not really exceptions to free speech, because those speech acts aren’t really speech at all, you see, or else they shouldn’t be considered in the category of speech that we examine when examining whether speech is free in a polity. Their exceptions, on the other hand, threaten not jut free speech itself, but even the security of freeish speech in societies that are more or less committed to ‘Free Speech.'” Etc.

        The reality is that just about everyone supports freeish speech, not completely free speech. But some of those people like to lecture others about not supporting free speech unreservedly enough, while others own up to the fact that while they broadly support substantially free speech, they do support both a regime of legal exceptions and also a (probably not very well-defined in most peoples’ minds) regime of social norms about what’s appropriate to say when.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


        We write in different styles. I think that probably stems from our minds approaching ideas in different ways. I prefer concise writing, with qualifications and clarifications separated out into separate sentences rather than all fit into one sentence burdened with the weight of a multitude of clauses. I’ve noticed that a lot of economists tend to write in my preferred style, while a lot of philosophers (and many of my fellow political scientists) tend to write more in your style.

        I’ll make no bones about my position: I think it’s easier to write complex prose than concise and clear prose, and I think it’s a herculean task to write complex and clear prose.

        In more fairness, though, I think your style reflects a thoughtful working out of ideas in the process of working them out. I also work out my ideas in writing. I’m an undying devotee of E. M. Forster’s line, “how can I know what I think until I see what I say? But I revise almost nonstop, and in my final output I try to show the conclusion of the thought process, with the process itself hidden behind a clean facade.Report

      • @james-hanley

        Again, we are partly in agreement. I think you are quite right that our different modes of writing, at least on these subjects, reflect different approaches, though I would put them less on the level of personal preference than of inherent tendency of those approaches: The explication that seems most natural, appropriate, or justifiable to you is the one that corresponds to your concept and the priorities it produces. Concept and “style” tend to produce and re-produce each other, as you seem to be aware. What you call your style reflects or expresses your very notion of the real or true. Specifically, your preference for a “conclusion” rather than a “process” replicates your theoretical presumptions, and, as you describe, produces a mode of presentation that in a sense is already what you most want to communicate, what you believe ought to be communicated or needs to be communicated, and even what you believe communication in these matters really is. The same goes for me in many ways, of course, as for most others. One makes what compromises one can with the alternative or opposing prejudices in seeking to expose them as such, but there are points where, for these reasons, the effort to communicate in a certain way, precisely because and to the extent it humors the ignorant and obstinate, would defeat its own purposes. The individual who responds ignorantly and impatiently makes an argument for ignorance and impatience that in most cases deserves nothing but complete concession, in other words for the arguer to be ignored and thus relieved of all further burdens of dialogue.Report

      • @michael-drew

        One of the reasons that I thought it worthwhile to divide the field into sub-fields was to make it possible to define “free-ish” more consistently. The “polarity” also points to the question of the role of government and the law.

        I don’t have time to develop the thought further, since it would involve an investigation of the origins of the modern doctrine of freedom of speech: Socrates and Jesus Christ and Mohammed and Spinoza, iconoclasts vs. iconodules and the wars of religion and the clash of civilizations properly understood and the MPAA ratings system and why there’s so much more foul language at this site than when it used to be for “gentlemen.” I mainly just wanted to acknowledge your comment.Report

  4. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    I liked Lee’s idea that the alternatives to free speech are worse than whatever damage is caused by free speech.

    I think it is easy to imagine a world in which only the stuff we perceive as bad free speech is banned but the more likely scenario is that this is a tricky double-edged sword and there is going to be speech that we like that gets the axe as well.

    Maybe anti-vaxxers will get banned but it is also possible and highly probably for people giving honest and sincere and necessary critiques of power to get banned as well. Would the speech that gets banned switch with every change of partisan affiliation in a democracy or would a party eventually use the bans on free speech to cement power?Report

    • Avatar Murali in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      In the play ground, when you are throwing insults around, children learn very quickly that they keep the insults personal and do not bring in people’s families. Over time, they develop a rule among themselves which forbids them from bringing up one another’s mothers no matter how much they may want to. Similarly, it would seem that some restrictions on speech may be acceptable to everyone if everyone has something they would rather other people did not insult and they preferred a rule where their own respective mothers were not insulted to one where they got to insult everyone’s mothers.Report

    • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      I liked Lee’s idea that the alternatives to free speech are worse than whatever damage is caused by free speech.

      This is not actually always true, and in fact is basically the reasons we have exceptions to free speech under US law.

      For example, the right to commit perjury would, rather obviously, screw with the right to a fair trial, so we don’t let people do that. The right to threaten people interferes with their freedom in general. The right to operate forty foot high speakers blaring your message outside someone’s house interferes with their right to *not* hear your message.

      Basically, Americans often get a sort of ‘right fetish’ and think all rights are literally absolute…but that is, in fact, impossible. Rights interact with each other. We shouldn’t let *non*-rights interfere with rights, but ‘rights’ are a somewhat broader category than most people think.

      Even things like anti-holocaust denial laws are rooted in things like that. They might be misguided, but ‘not having genocide committed again against a certain group of people’ is certainly a right, and the idea is that is what such laws are stopping. I think they’re factually incorrect about how much those laws will stop that. (If anything, it just feeds paranoid nonsense.), but even those laws are attempting to weight rights against each other.

      Which, in a way, points out a weakness of trying to operate a system of government via ‘rights’. You can always come up with *some* vague right that things impact, even important rights like speech and justice. Which means you now have a clear justification for stepping on those rights. Like, for example, how we need intelligence information *right now* to protect people’s right to not be blown up, so we’ll throw justice out the window and imprison people without charge, and even torture some of them.Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to DavidTC says:

        Even things like anti-holocaust denial laws are rooted in things like that. They might be misguided, but ‘not having genocide committed again against a certain group of people’ is certainly a right, and the idea is that is what such laws are stopping. I think they’re factually incorrect about how much those laws will stop that. (If anything, it just feeds paranoid nonsense.), but even those laws are attempting to weight rights against each other.

        Ever think that laws against denying the Holocaust in the European countries that have them might have less to do with preventing future genocides and more to do with people in those countries not wanting to me reminded what role their countries played in past genocides.

        And if that is the case, you may want to rethink the rest of what you wrote.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC in reply to DavidTC says:

        Ever think that laws against denying the Holocaust in the European countries that have them might have less to do with preventing future genocides and more to do with people in those countries not wanting to me reminded what role their countries played in past genocides.

        Um, while that might explain the laws in Germany and Hungary and Austria and maybe Spain, and maybe hypothetically France’s and Poland’s and Lithuania’s or Belgium’s and Czech Republic’s and Bosnia and Herzegovina’s and the Netherlands’s (Although it seems a particularly silly idea that we’ll blame them for their Nazi occupation.), I rather doubt it explains the laws in Portugal or Liechtenstein, unless you’re reading out of a different history book than I am. (And while not a ‘European country’, I am fairly certain that *Israel* had no role in the Holocaust, for several obvious reasons, yet they have a law against Holocaust denial.)

        And if that is the case, you may want to rethink the rest of what you wrote.

        Uh, no. My claim was that that thinking in a ‘rights’ based framework allows, basically, the justification of anything, *including the restrictions of rights*. Because lawmakers can always find some conflict with some other right.

        If you want to say the conflict of ‘right to not be genocided’ outweighing ‘right to free speech’ is not the *actual* reason holocaust denial laws exist, then you’re saying the framework is not only broken, with loopholes large enough the entire thing is nonsense, but it’s broken in such a manner that governments can easily *lie* to make use of the loopholes in it.

        This hardly disproves my point that the framework is crap. In fact, it rather demonstrates it.Report

  5. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    Would you rather live in the United States (which seems to have the most radical free speech doctrine of any country) or Saudi Arabia which just sentenced a man to receive 10,000 lashes because he wrote a blog post that was allegedly critical of islam?

    I’d pick the United States, any day and every day.Report

    • Avatar Murali in reply to Saul Degraw says:


      I’m pretty sure we can have places where freedom of speech is restricted which don’t amount to Saudi Arabia. I actually happen to live in one of those places. It is not unpleasant. If we’re defending free-ish speech, then sure some of those defences will work. But we’re not talking free-ish speech, we’re talking about completely free speech where everything except death threats and shouting fire in a crowded theatre (when it isn’t on fire) is permitted. Because Singapore has free-ish speech as does Germany and France and all those other European countries which ban holocaust denial.

      Suppose, you were to criticise the free market and advocate for some regulations, and I were to bring up soviet Russia and ask whether you preferred living in soviet Russia or the US. Wouldn’t you think that I was bringing up a false dichotomy?Report

      • Avatar Creon Critic in reply to Murali says:

        Human rights reports on Singapore would strike American’s who believe in the wisdom of the First Amendment as quite unpleasant.

        The predicted and predictable consequences of the state being permitted to look over the shoulders of authors and speakers results: intimidation and bullying of people (cartoonists even!) who level critiques. There isn’t a non-free speech framework that I’ve seen that protects the subaltern, the people whose speech is going to be suppressed, as is evident in these human rights reports on Singapore, are going to be the people who aren’t holding the reigns of power. That’s precisely why the default position of open/more free speech is so critical.

        Here’s the US State Department, 2013 Singapore country report on the subject (emphasis mine):

        Freedom of Speech: The constitution provides for freedom of speech and freedom of expression but imposes official restrictions on these rights, and the government significantly restricted freedom of speech and of the press with regard to criticism of the government and statements that would undermine social or religious harmony. Government intimidation and pressure to conform resulted in self-censorship among many journalists. Increased debate regarding many public issues, such as the institution of a minimum wage, public transportation, the rights of domestic workers, immigration policy, salaries of elected officials, and the role of the president did take place to a minor extent in newspapers but more so on the internet. The government-linked media extensively covered opposition parties and candidates.

        Citizens need a permit to speak at indoor public gatherings that are outside the hearing or view of nonparticipants if the topic refers to race or religion. In the campaign leading to the by-election in January, opposition parties held rallies as often as the ruling party.
        The government effectively restricted the ability to speak or demonstrate freely in public to a single location called Speakers’ Corner, located in a public park adjacent to a noisy intersection. Prospective speakers must be citizens and show their identification cards. Events need not be registered in advance with the police but must be preregistered online with the government. While it is not necessary to declare speech topics in advance, regulations governing the Speakers’ Corner state that “the speech should not be religious in nature and should not have the potential to cause feelings of enmity, ill will, or hostility between different racial or religious groups.” Subject to obtaining a police permit, permanent residents and other foreigners may also speak or participate in or organize activities at the Speakers’ Corner.

        Here’s Human Rights Watch on Singapore (World Report, 2014) (emphasis mine):

        The rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association are limited in Singapore in the name of security, public order, morality, and racial and religious harmony. The restrictions are interpreted broadly. […]

        Printed materials continue to be regulated by the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, which requires all newspapers to renew their registration annually and limits circulation of foreign newspapers which the government determines “engage in the domestic politics of Singapore.” The two corporations that dominate media regularly take a pro-government stance. Media Corp, owned by a government investment company, dominates broadcasting. Singapore Press Holdings Limited (SPH) dominates print media, and although a private company, the government controls appointment of its shareholders.

        Singapore uses criminal defamation and contempt of court charges to rein in criticism of the government and the ruling People’s Action Party. In July, Leslie Chew, a cartoonist posting his work on “Demon-cratic Singapore,” his Facebook page, was charged with “scandalizing the judiciary” for four cartoons that authorities said implied the Singapore judiciary was not impartial or independent. In exchange for dropping the charges, Chew apologized, took down the cartoons and accompanying reader comments, and agreed not to “put up any post or comic strip … that amounts to contempt of court.”


      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Murali says:


        Singapore is not a country I would hold up as a representative of good democracy. Canada, the UK, France, Germany, and Italy less free speech protections than the U.S. but they also have governments with opposing political parties and these parties can take power from one and another. Even Japan has given majority rule to the opposition Democratic Party of Japan from time to time and they just successfully prosecuted an artist because her work looks suspiciously like a vagina. This is rather hypocritical of the Japanese government considering what you can see in their pornography and manga.

        When will the opposition be sizable in Singapore? When will you be able to do a gathering of more than 5 people and not need a police permit? When will bubble gum be unbanned?Report

      • Avatar Murali in reply to Murali says:


        Yeah the Singapore government does go too far, especially regarding the bit about criticising the judiciary. The government could afford to be less uptight about these things. Now, most Singaporeans like it well enough over here. Remember, I’m not saying that Americans should have more restrictions on their speech. My argument is purely negative. I personally like living in a place where there are few personal demonstrations and riots and where things are not all politics all the time. Do I think that this could be achieved with fewer restrictions on speech? Yes. Nevertheless, I’m willing to trade off my freedom to criticise the judiciary in order to stay here, even though I’ve got plenty of things to criticise and even mock the judiciary about. I’m not the one claiming that such a trade-off is sub-optimal for everyone.Report

      • Avatar Murali in reply to Murali says:


        I was sure they legalised the sale of chewing gum some years ago. But it seems to only be the therapeutic kind. But you can still buy them in Malaysia and bring them over for personal use.Report

      • Avatar Creon Critic in reply to Murali says:


        most Singaporeans like it well enough over here.

        Well, you’d better say that. Otherwise you could be identified as a risk to the public order. Otherwise the Attorney General can send you a demand letter, prosecute you, and penalize you (as happened to poor Mr. Chew). That’s another pitfall of erecting a speech censoring system. How do I know that you (or any correspondent living subject to such restrictions) really believes XYZ, and isn’t merely mouthing approving statements to escape the punishment from the state? Can I tell if you really object or not when the state gets to punish you for raising objections? Or maybe you have criticisms, but you feel obligated to leaven them with praise, because Big Brother is watching.

        I can be confident that the Attorney General of the United States will not send me a letter demanding my publications and speeches conform to his vision of what desirable speech entails – really that Undesirable Publications Act, which according to State Department and human rights NGOs is broadly interpreted by authorities in Singapore, is pretty scary stuff. You can be confident that your correspondents in America can say, plainly and frankly what they believe about Obama, or Bush, or Cheney, etc. without fear that they’ll get a knock on the door from the authorities.

        I personally like living in a place where there are few personal demonstrations and riots and where things are not all politics all the time.

        So, if I get through the first hurdle of determining that you actually hold the position you’re presenting and not merely saying what you need to say to stay out of jail, then there’s the question of who can put things this way? Roughly, “those pesky demonstrators, such a nuisance.” Well, likely someone operating from a position of privilege. Maybe the authorities treat you and yours pretty kindly. Maybe you don’t have much to complain about. A secure job. Taste in art, literature, and beliefs that aren’t deemed deviant in some way by the authorities, etc. Your needs might be well met.

        Unfortunately, if Singapore is like every other place on earth, there are probably people who don’t have it as good as you do. That is, they have something to protest about. Maybe they are in the LGBT community, or have a critique to level about the current government, or maybe they just like art or literature that doesn’t conform to the government-prescribed boundaries. Or maybe they want to read a foreign publication that comments critically on politics in Singapore. All areas where one would be on dangerous territory in Singapore. Of course the privileged will find protests troublesome, it pierces their bubble, it injects some of the troubles of the world into their otherwise charmed lives.

        I can’t put it any other way than, there’s a severe imposition when the state can decide demonstrations (and free speech) just cause too much trouble for “public order” or “tranquility”. Questions arise like, Whose order are we talking about? Whose tranquility are we protecting? To my mind, society is better off for having demonstrations, having the debate take place (peacefully and publicly) than having a state controlled, speech-censoring, pre-clearance system (or licensure regimes with deposits that’ll be forfeit if a publication offends the state’s sensibilities, as is the case in Singapore). If parts of the population are anti-war, it is better that we hear it. If some sections of the populace believe their civil rights are being denied, they ought to say so and the broader community ought to be forced to put up with the inconvenience of having the point of view aired. In public.

        Last point, I promise. How are we as a society to uncover graft, corruption, and government abuses absent the protections of free speech. Suppose the judiciary in a hypothetical country whose name starts with “S” is corrupt, how is the public supposed to find that out and demand corrective measures if journalists are cowering in fear of retaliation by the state? If demonstrations can be policed out of existence? If the press is, when not state-owned, reliably state-friendly?

        (Sorry if any of this comes across as a personal attack. It isn’t. The you’s are general you’s. And it is harder to convert some of this to third person, like “One better say that, wouldn’t one.” And lastly, this isn’t to hold the US up as some sort of paragon of virtue in this domain, or any human rights domain. We have significant problems that deserve just as much scrutiny as those of Singapore.)Report

      • Avatar Murali in reply to Murali says:


        Suppose you are right about that. That is, people ought to have the right to criticise the state up to and including the judiciary. Having that right does not amount to free speech. For instance suppose that tomorrow, some judge sufficient pisses off parliament that parliament repeals the law against scandalising the judiciary. Now, government can be criticised but people are still not allowed to mock religions in public. Strictly speaking you still have only free-ish speech (if that at all), not free speech in the sense that Americans enjoy. It seems that that particular trade off need not be something that everyone needs to reject.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Murali says:

        “I was sure they legalised the sale of chewing gum some years ago. But it seems to only be the therapeutic kind.”

        Welp, looks like @murali might’ve jumped the gum.Report

      • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to Murali says:


        Your answer actually strengthens @murali ‘s point. Maybe not so much his claim about Singapore (and your and Creon’s posts tend to challenge that claim), but his claim that at least some countries with more speech restrictions than the US have the markers of vibrant democracies. The big question is not “would we rather live in the US or Saudi Arabia?” or even “would we rather live in the US or Singapore?” but “would we rather live in the US or Canada?” That’s a tougher call, and as some of my supposedly “progressive” friends remind me, Canada is a good option.*

        *At least one of them, by the way, also cites Ireland as a good option because she has dual citizenship. That strikes me as strange, because I understand Ireland is a lot less “progressive” on social issues than she is.Report

    • @murali
      So just artists and authors being subject to the jackboot of the state, not political journalists? Well, that’s progress of a sort, but I’d submit still not good enough.

      Here’s why. The state still gets to promulgate a banned works list and populate that list with undesirables. So maybe Voltaire’s Candide is banned, an impermissible affront to Leibniz’s good work (Theodicy). And if we’re banning Voltaire’s Candide , then Leonard Bernstein’s interpretation doesn’t get a performance either. Monty Python’s Life of Brian, out as blasphemous, as is Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi. Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary is not allowed. Nor is Serrano’s Piss Christ, and showing ants on a crucifix offends some, so David Wojnarowicz’s a Fire in My Belly, also banned. I could see Victor Hugo’s the Hunchback of Notre Dame running afoul of the law, the same with Puccini’s Tosca.

      Disagree with any particular holding? Well form a state committee that decides which works of art our fellow citizens don’t get to see – their delicate sensibilities are too sensitive to handle these artworks and the state censor gets to ban them. This road doesn’t have to go full blown Entartete Kunst, but the state committee does wield a banhammer with the threats of fines and incarceration looming in the background. To me, that state committee’s existence is deeply problematic. The censor bends free expression around its views and values by its mere presence. The censor’s outsized voice necessarily impinges on important liberty interests of everyone else in the society.

      Why is it ok to subject artists, authors, playwrights, and filmmakers to the intimidation and bullying set aside, thus far in the conversation,for journalists. Aren’t the artists too engaged in an important enterprise worthy of deference? Don’t their conscience’s count? To me, the arts are not some sort of trivial side project – a domain where the state may roam free and trample art and artists underfoot. The arts are a critical field of inquiry, exploration, and expression.

      Three more brief reasons the anti-blasphemy/don’t mock religion rule poses serious problems. First, there are entire religions that consider entire other religions blasphemous heresies. What happens when the believer of X religion considers the schismatic, believer of X’ religion a mockery? If X is nearer to the reigns of power, you may very well get into European Wars of Religion territory. Also, does the government get to assert itself against things like the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the Jedi Church? Or against authors like the Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens? In various works and debates they can be accused of mocking religion.

      Second, suppose the state takes iconoclasts seriously, any given graven image can be construed as mocking religion. What state action follows as a consequence?

      Third, to simplify, religions tends to produce sacred stuff. Sacred images, gestures, foodstuffs, clothing, music… Do we add to copyright law a whole section against mocking the religious? How many items get put into the list of off limits? Crucifixes, the Eucharist, the Book of Common Prayer, images of Buddha, and on and on. Cordoning off religion in this way produces an awful lot of unfreedom for people who want to discuss, debate, and critically evaluate religion and the religious, both their own religion and that of others.Report

  6. Avatar James Hanley says:

    I don’t appreciate you rebutting the reason I proffered for supporting free speech, Murali. I don’t like it at all. I have a lot on my plate right now, and contemplating my true rejection for free speech was not on the list.Report

  7. Avatar Griff says:

    I missed the previous thread, but as a US citizen the reason I support a strong First Amendment is that I don’t trust the government to decide which speech should be allowed.Report

  8. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    This was a kick-ass post, @murali . Kick. Ass.

    Particularly with respect to the concept of free speech as a means of resolving disputes, I offered the idea in my original post as an ideal towards which a society or a culture or a polity might aspire, rather than as a descriptor of any place that actually exists on the planet whether today or in history. There has never yet been, anywhere or anywhen, a society so refined and civilized that all of the conflict amongst its members were resolved in violence free ways. Probably never will be.

    For what it’s worth, I intend to follow up on this series of discussions with another post indicating what the consequences are of forming an ideal of free speech for various reasons, and what to do about the fact that there are competing interests, and that these ideals, whatever they may be, are unattainable.Report

  9. Avatar Stillwater says:


    Really good post. A few things.

    1. If we really get in the weeds, I think your arguments in A-C can be pretty successfully challenged by a speech absolutist, but they do shift the burden enough to effect our probability assignments regarding their truth. So, good on ya!

    2. Regarding D and E, I like what you’ve said in each response. My own criticism of each would have been along a different line of attack, tho: that each is argument Burt offers is correct insofar as the folks within that society already accept the general applicability of speech rights so it sorta mixes up the causal conditions upon which the justification relies. Also, your point about free speech promoting peace as a response to the Hebdo massacre is spot on. I’m sorta amazed that folks have missed that point to the extent they have, actually.

    3. Has Roger commented on this thread yet? If so, I’d probably just +1 whatever he wrote and leave it at that.

    4. I’m not a speech rights absolutist, so my justification for free speech not gonna rely on claims that involve the phrases “self-evident” or “necessarily” or “must” or “always” or any of that. And even if agree with a robust embrace of the principle of free speech, on my own justificatory calculus, the “truth” of a principle is revealed by outcomes revealed in practice. So I’m not at all opposed to the prospect that certain broad types of speech can be constrained (or as James “suppressed”) and lead to good outcomes. In each instance, tho, the outcome of having restricted speech needs to be justified as having created a better state of affairs than otherwise. And I think a lot of that will depend on the cultural, political and demographic (etc) factors in which those specific restrictions are imposed. It very well may be the case that Singapore is better off for having imposed some very definitive restriction on speech, yet from that it doesn’t follow that those restrictions would lead to better outcomes in Malaysia, Canada or the US.

    So my argument for free speech that any restriction on speech must reveal itself in practice as having created better outcomes than otherwise, and is not justified otherwise (in a context, of course).

    5. Has Roger posted on this topic yet?Report

    • Avatar Roger in reply to Stillwater says:

      “So my argument for free speech that any restriction on speech must reveal itself in practice as having created better outcomes than otherwise, and is not justified otherwise (in a context, of course).”

      My answer is, as usual, a variant of this. We consequentialists are consistent.

      The value of free speech is in its value as a discovery mechanism of superior social outcomes. It contributes to variation, experimentation, gathering consensus, coordination, control of exploitation, questioning authority, etc etc.

      Free speech is about communication and communication is greatly about cooperative problem solving. That is why we communicate.

      Jaybird also said it well on the other thread. The value in free speech is in not having those in authority use coercion to repress our speech. Why are they trying to suppress it? For whose benefit?

      Singapore may be getting along fine without free speech. But this is dependent upon the wisdom and benevolence of current authority. This is something which cannot be taken for granted. As the world changes, Singapore will need to change with it and limits on free speech may adversely affect its ability to respond and adapt and push back against exploitation and the forces of change resistance which invariable grow within society.

      For a political and institutional elaboration on these themes I strongly recommend Douglas North’s writings on the topic of OPEN ACCESS ORDERS. Lots of stuff on the Internet.Report

  10. Avatar LWA says:

    I’ve been thinking lately of how oftentimes our very conceptual framework leads us to view as objective, things which are subjective.

    For example, liberalism envisions itself as open source, totally accepting of virtually any conception of the good life.
    On the cul de sac where I live, my next door neighbor is an Afghan family; the neighbor on the other side is a Serbian immigrant; the rest of the 12 houses are Vietnamese, Hispanic, and perhaps a Caucasian family or two.
    In secular American fashion, we all lead independent lives pursuing our own ideas of the good life, and no one imposes their vision on the rest.

    We secular westerners view this as the universal objective reality that can be applied everywhere. But I’ve come to realize that for some people, the conception of the good is intrinsically twined with it being a communal reality.

    I was researching traditional Afghan architecture, and was struck by how the villages don’t, in western tradition, consist of individual houses in rows, each detached and isolated from the other.
    In traditional Afghan urban construction, the houses all abut each other, and the streets are crisscrossed with bridges that lead from one family compound to another, with the public space being fluid- the “public” street widens and narrows, and blends indistinguishably from the “private” courtyards.
    The concept of there being this bright shining line between public and private, between the individual self and the family/clan/community, doesn’t exist the same way it does for us. This is not unique to Afghanistan- the same urban and sociological pattern exists in most non-Enlightenment societies.

    This is the Good Order that religious people envision, that seems like some inexplicable tyranny to us secular people; for them, its not good enough that our laws have some historical basis in Abrahamic faith; they need to mount the 10 Commandments on the courthouse steps.

    I fully understand why this is unacceptable to secular people. And I don’t propose that there is an easy fit between the two, but I also don’t believe that the difference are irreconcilable.

    The idea that rights are these polar things- like you either have Free Speech (and we all know what that is!) or you don’t, is part of the problem I mentioned previously. It creates a form of fundamentalism of its own, where compromise and flexibility is impossible, and all goals are well, fundamental.

    For instance, within my own lifetime, one could get arrested for writing certain books that were labeled as pornography; But one could also publish the word “ni**er” in a family newspaper. Our concept of free speech has widened and evolved, not because there has been some new scientific discovery about rights, but simply because our ideas have evolved.
    But is stands to reason doesn’t it, that as the demographic and cultural makeup of America changes, the ideas about free speech should also evolve and change?Report

    • Avatar j r in reply to LWA says:

      The idea that rights are these polar things- like you either have Free Speech (and we all know what that is!) or you don’t, is part of the problem I mentioned previously. It creates a form of fundamentalism of its own…

      No it does not, because that is not what that word means.Report

  11. Avatar Patrick says:

    Free speech is an inherent good. That seems the easiest thing to say — but it strikes me as the hardest thing to justify. Why something is inherently good is rarely obvious and requires constructing some rather abstract philosophical structures, which often enough fails because it’s really just verbose intuition. Intuition isn’t good enough.

    I… think this is true, but largely not relevant.

    Are we talking about whether or not free speech is an inherent good, philosophically speaking, or are we talking about whether or not we should treat free speech as an inherent good as a matter of law?

    The first question is one that you can readily get into the weeds discussing, but inherentness or self evidence or whatever you want to call it… if we are trying to justify free speech philosophically as an inherent good, we’re going to have to define what we mean by inherent good and the definition is one that is likely not universal. Meaning whoever gets to define the term probably wins.

    The second is pretty straightforward iff’n you ask me.

    We decided, operationally, that free speech is to be regarded axiomatically as a good, period. In order for us to revisit that principle, we need to amend the Constitution. We’ve chosen not to do that, so as a matter of our particular social contract (default construct, whatever you want to call it), we’re stuck treating that as axiomatically true whether or not it is true in a normative sense… or indeed, even if it can be show that it is not axiomatically true

    It’s like the Second. Like it or not, that’s the rulebook we are playing with.

    The Natural Law folks will say they are self-evident rights. The postmodernists may or may not agree. The relativists will disagree. But regardless of whether or not they are Rights in the Inherent Sense, we have accepted them as Rights in the axiomatic sense.Report

    • Avatar zic in reply to Patrick says:

      We decided, operationally, that free speech is to be regarded axiomatically as a good, period. In order for us to revisit that principle, we need to amend the Constitution.

      This isn’t true; there are clear limits on free speech upheld by the constitution. Yelling fire, hate speech (though I’d be willing to debate hate speech when there are already other clear felonies committed; I don’t like piling on crimes,) identities of minors. There are liability laws and defamation. When I wrote, there were national security concerns and the prickly weeds of classified information. I often felt I did not have freedom of speech with what I wrote. Journalists serve time in jail for failing to divulge sources and Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden and Jullian Assange. I know artists who do photography and video using drones, and it’s illegal for them to earn money from making art.Report

      • Avatar Patrick in reply to zic says:

        This isn’t true; there are clear limits on free speech upheld by the constitution.

        I would rephrase that a tad. Operationally, you’re correct that there are limits on free speech as defined by the body of case law, but I don’t think that they are particularly clear, myself.

        I also figure that they’re largely not Constitutional under any practical reading of the document, even a living Constitutionalist one. The fact that we basically ignore that for all intents and purposes doesn’t mean it isn’t wrong, it just means we don’t like amending the Constitution because it’s hard.

        I don’t know that this carries a lot of oomph, from an argumentation standpoint.Report

      • Avatar Will H. in reply to zic says:

        I think the limits are fairly clear, but exactly how many limits are out there remains unknown.Report

    • Avatar LWA in reply to Patrick says:

      The Constitution has always guaranteed free speech. Even when people were being arrested and jailed for writing certain books, the courts and the government agreed that THAT book was not protected under free speech.
      I’m not being sarcastic- its just that the definition of rights isn’t self evident, and that while a philosopher may assert that rights exist independent of government, operationally, rights only exist to the extent we collectively agree on them, and enforce them.

      Its like the conversation here about Singapore- all the examples cited of its violation of the right of free speech could be found in American history, perpetrated by the very people who would wax eloquent about the rights of man. Men, specifically white property owning men.

      This is what I keep getting at in different ways- that rights are flexible concepts, that grow or shrink and evolve and change.Report

      • Avatar Citizen in reply to LWA says:

        “The Constitution has always guaranteed free speech. ”
        No. This administration has on more than one occasion tried to make Free Speech zones. Only the peoples actions of not observing the zones (and permits) has kept free speech in the public domain.

        In Anarchist fashion, we all lead independent lives pursuing our own ideas of the good life, and no one imposes their vision on the rest.Report

  12. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Free speech is an inherent good. That seems the easiest thing to say — but it strikes me as the hardest thing to justify.

    Don’t see it like that. See it like this: “The inability of the government to silence criticism is an inherent good.” We can even expand it: “The inability of the church to silence its critics is an inherent good.” “The inability of the powerful to lawfully silence its critics is an inherent good.”

    There’s all sorts of stuff you can do.

    Of course, someone is likely to point out “Is it an inherent good that the weak cannot silence their bullies???” I’d just want to explore how often it is that limitations on speech actually result in bullies being silenced. As far as I can tell, social shaming, social sanction, and other social tools are a lot more likely to get bullies to leave weak kids alone than passing laws.

    I mean, setting policies tends has demonstrably resulted in children getting suspended or expelled for writing short stories that have guns in them or for hearing impaired children named “Hunter” being disciplined for signing their names. I’m pretty sure that that wasn’t the original goal of zero tolerance… but that’s where we’ve ended up.

    Though, to be sure, prior restraint on the part of parents when it comes to naming their kids “Hunter” could have prevented that sort of thing.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

      The “Hunter” story didn’t really happen. Also, name signs are created, they’re not pre determined (the kid in question ha a name sign that is a combination of letters that the school did not discipline him for, or demand he change, as the stories passed around the conservative blogosphere liked to claim).

      If it had been a private school, though, would it have been an issue? Charter?

      I agree that the inability of the government to silence criticism is at least an instrumental good, one our government has a way of getting around pretty regularly, but most examples of that are more likely to be praised than criticized on the blogs that spread the fake Hunter story than decried and other such “look over here, not over there where the real shit is going down” nonsense.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

        Not merely the conservative blogosphere. Huffington, Gawker, even The Blaze ran with it.

        I can’t find confirmation that it didn’t really happen… for example, all of the sites mentioned above didn’t run edits at the end of the story saying “by the way, this didn’t really happen”. Where are you seeing that?Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

        If it had been a private school, though, would it have been an issue? Charter?

        I’m pretty sure that Facebook would have done what it did, as would have Huffington, Gawker, and The Blaze.

        And I’m pretty sure that the school would have quickly issued a press release discussing how they have a “strict policy” but they were “working with the parents” in order to reach a “compromise”.

        So I see the hypothetical reaching the same conclusion as what allegedly happened.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

        Ah, found something, kinda.


        The school said “We’re not asking anybody to do anything!” and the dad said, and I’m quoting the article here:

        “If they feel like they’re wrong, and they’re not requiring him to change his name sign, then there’s no issue here. And an apology and a, uh, you know, “we’re going to go ahead and proceed as usual” would have sufficed. We kind of felt like at one point, yesterday…that they were trying to deter, deter the credibility of this story. And I don’t feel that’s a proper response,” Brian Spanjer said.

        So, as it turns out, I was wrong. The child was *NOT* disciplined for signing his name.

        It looks like the child was asked to come up with another sign, there was a huge public outcry, and the school backed down.

        I’m pretty sure that a more accurate rewrite of my original comment could easily have the same conclusion, though.Report

      • Avatar Malarche in reply to Chris says:

        The school district only tried to do it, then backed down, which means it never ever happened at all even a teensy bit, because conservatives!Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Chris says:

        It actually remains unclear if the school district even tried. The father says they did. The school says they didn’t. One paper claims to have quotes indicating the school did but I can’t find the full interview anywhere.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

        There is no evidence the school ever tried. Such evidence would be easy to produce, in the 2010s, because public schools document everything.

        So yeah, maybe a miscommunication about the sign, but asking him to change it? Didn’t happen.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

        What’s more, it was a sign he’d been using with the school for some time.

        Again, no evidence means it didn’t happen. If they ask my son to bring an extra pair of socks, I have ten copies, paper and electronic. If the school made that request, they’d have covered their assess as completely as possible.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

        I’d say that the only evidence that we have that the school tried is the word of the father.

        Without official documentation, all we have is “miscommunication”? Fair enough.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Chris says:

        Our personal experience with private schools is that you surrender your rights at the door. And any judgement made against you, without due process, can be used against gaining admittance to a public school in the wake of Colmubine, too.

        We learned this salient fact the hard way. And we learned an important lesson: it’s very, very important to not admit things. “Don’t tell the truth,” is often the single most important advice parents can give a child. Particularly when it comes to the kids right to go to school for bringing bread knives, shears, leatherman, or Swiss army knives to school. I don’t know much about drawings; that actually does bring up free speech issues. But drawings are also often the first indicators of severe harm being done to a child, too.

        Don’t lie, but don’t admit, either. That shield’s a lot of kids from undue harm from school authorities. But it also shields a lot of parents from authorities, too. Never, ever easy.Report

      • Avatar Malarche in reply to Chris says:

        Failure to produce a document is proof the dad lied? ‘Oly ‘ell, if I’m ever on trial and Chris is in the jury pool, I pray to Zeuss my lawyer ‘excludes ‘im!Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Chris says:

        His having attitude actually seems as likely or moreso to work to your advantage if you’re on trial and he’s a juror, to me.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Chris says:

        that attitudeReport

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

        I wonder what % of people who believe this happened ’cause the father said so, despite the school denying it from the start, automatically believed Jackie’s story was made up?

        I raise the point about a story in which nothing happened in the end, miscommunication or no, because the same people likely to raise it in polite conversation two years on are likely to pay no attention to, or even approve of journalists being arrested here, there, and everywhere (except maybe outside of the U.S., in countries they don’t like); protesters being attested for standing on the wrong sidewalk, or walking, or standing still; protest zones at presidential speeches; and so on and so forth.

        Not you, of course, but I suspect you know of whom I speak. It’s a political game for them. Schools: bad. Cops: good. America: good (except the schools, and Obama).

        I doubt you’ll find many people, in fact, who act as though free speech is an inherent good, even if they say it is.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Chris says:

        My experience has been wholly in private schools, so I cannot speak to how similar it is to what is done in public schools (or if public schools are consistent more or less nationwide when it comes to these sorts of things), but perhaps I can shed a bit of light on how I’ve seen schools handle such matters.

        Some schools (which is really to say, the leadership of those schools, whomever that may be) will advise teachers and/or take the tack themselves of purposefully not putting things down in writing that may come back to bite them if it ever gets out. The are other — more noble reasons — to address certain things in ways that aren’t “savable” (e.g., certain conversations are better had in person or over the phone versus via email because of the greater likelihood of miscommunication via the latter) but sometimes this course is taken so that the school can maintain deniability.

        However, at the same time, if the school does want to enforce a particular rule or policy and leave themselves options if the parents do not adhere to their edicts, they’ll want documentation showing the steps they have taken. For instance, if this story was true and the family/child did not change the sign, the school would need to demonstrate that requests were made and certain steps were taken before they could take further action. So they’d probably want a written record.

        My (amateur) hunch on what went down?

        The child may have used a sign for his name that was unfamiliar to his teachers or at least unfamiliar as a way of indicating his name. An article I saw indicated he used a different form or approach to signing than ASL. So his teachers probably saw him make a sign that involved fashioning his hand into what looked like a gun and were confused/concerned about it. They spoke with their administration and the parents were called in or otherwise approached for a chat. “Hey, help us understand Hunter’s signing.” Remember, this is a 3-year-old. So the possibility of him ‘saying’ something that was not 100% clear to his teachers is very high. Of course, the teachers/administrators might not have been as gentle with the conversation as we might have hoped. Instead of, “Help us understand Hunter’s signing,” it might have been, “We’re concerned about something Hunter signed the other day.” From there, it is *very* easy for the parents to go from “They’re concerned” or even just “We got called into the Principal’s office” to “They’re telling us he has to change it!” with zero malice on their intent.

        Believe me, the number of times I have been misunderstood by parents (or have misunderstood them) are too many to count. And given that this particular misunderstanding was over a hot button, ‘culture war’ issue AND something as important as a child’s name, it blew up for the parents and from there went viral.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

        I can see that. He’d been learning sign at the school for more than a year at that point, so his usual name sign, which has nothing to do with hunting, was familiar to them.

        My son’s been in three school districts, and every interaction I’ve had with each of them has been recorded, signed off at all involved levels, and if it’s more than just a permission slip, I probably got an official version in the mail.

        I got an email from his school while typing this comment (probably a automatic email about something going on this week). I got calls, texts, and emails over the holiday break, and if he’s absent, I get a call and if I don’t answer, an email. I get progress reports online and in the mail; I get calls and emails from counselors and assistant principles if they have any unscheduled interactions with him, or if they schedule one.

        His little brother, in 1st grade in a different city, gets even more stuff sent to his mother.Report

      • Avatar Malarche in reply to Chris says:

        My son’s been in three school districts, and every interaction I’ve had with each of them has been recorded, signed off at all involved levels, and if it’s more than just a permission slip, I probably got an official version in the mail.

        Nary such an experience have we had with ours, so perhaps the generalization is a wee hasty? It is, indeed, but an assumption that the particular district is like one’s own.

        Can it be possible that we who have access only to the paucity of information reported in our noble media can truly claim to know with certainty the truth of said alleged incident? Whether we side with father or school, we must pile assumption upon assumption, until we have built a siege tower of them, a war machine with which we may attack the ramparts of Truth itself.Report

  13. Avatar Roger says:

    “I’m gonna tell my son to be a prophet of mistakes because for every truth, there are half a million lies.”

    Liz Phair.

    “We can straightforwardly see that truth-conducive deliberation is more difficult than deliberation that would lead to false beliefs. …if the benefits of true beliefs or the costs of false beliefs are not internalised by the reasoners themselves, a free marketplace of ideas would under produce truths and over produce lies.”


    We need to be careful about confusing false ideas with lies. They could be lies or mistakes. And though there may be only limited costs in peddling lies and mistakes (at least ones which are non obvious), this does not apply to adopting lies and mistakes. Thus the recipient is biased toward ideas which are personally beneficial (whether true or not, and whether harmful to others or not).

    I would agree that some ideas are so clearly destructive that they should be regulated. Shouting fire is the usual example. Still the exception doesn’t negate the rule.

    “Most of you think that at least some economic regulations are an improvement over an unregulated market. It seems inconsistent for such non-hard core libertarians to believe that some regulations are better in the marketplace of consumption goods but not in the marketplace of ideas. If you are willing to consider that restrictions/regulations on speech can be justified on a case by case basis, that does not count as free speech, at least as we ordinarily conceive of it.”

    Your dismissal is too broad. The heuristic for an extremely high burden of proof and consensus that a form of speech be toxic is not a blanket dismissal of the value of free speech, just as the acknowledgment that markets should be regulated in some extreme circumstances is not a blanket dismissal of the heuristic value of free markets.

    Lies and mistakes are inherent in society. And as you recognize, those in government are as prone to it as any. The key distinction is who decides. The government or elites decide what they say. If they also decide what we get to say or not it is not likely to end well. Even if your math on mistakes and lies adds up, the key threat isn’t the magnitude of false beliefs, it is the bias which matters.

    Free speech usually relates not so much to private discourse, but public “broadcasting” in the original use of the term. It is simply easier for narrow interests to cooperate to the detriment of distributed, uncoordinated interests. Therefore, free speech protections seek to partially correct for this imbalance or bias. If the narrow interests can control broadcast speech, they will, and the narrow interests can exploit the broader interests.Report