Archive for June 12th, 2008

(Updated 6/13)

In response to an emailed comment by a certain reader, I feel it is appropriate to clarify my stand on free speech.

I frequently say I believe in complete freedom of speech, no hate-speech exceptions, etc. However when I say complete freedom of speech, I use the term only to refer to expressed opinions. My stand does not extend to protection of false factual claims. I do indeed believe it should be a offence, under certain circumstances, to make specific objectively false statements about others. In other words, I do not advocate repeal of laws against defamation.

(Of course, in some countries it is fashionable to use defamation laws to punish statements that are essentially opinions, or claims that are offensive but true. Needless to say, I find both disgusting.)

There are certain other circumstances where speech can be legitimately regulated. Without discussing them individually, let me just mention that they all fall into one of the two narrow categories listed below:

a) Making objectively false statements that directly hurt the reputation of others. This includes defamation as discussed above, and related matters. In my view, these should be civil offences.

b) Causing imminent and grave violence through speech. This includes situations like ordering your followers to commit a crime, shouting fire in a crowded theatre, directly inciting a riot, telling a companion to step to his left in a dark mountain knowing there is a deep gorge there, using fighting words (defined in a very narrow sense as in current US law). The word ‘imminent’ (as defined in current US law, say) is very important; thus speech that worsens communal harmony and leads to an increased likelihood of violence would not qualify, nor would mere advocacy of a crime. In my view, it should be a criminal offence to violate this exception.

I should stress that these exceptions to free speech are very narrow. In particular, they do not cover opinions, however hurtful.  I believe that offending someone’s feelings through your opinions (e.g. hate speech, religious views) should be completely legal. Similarly I uphold an absolute right to freedom of expression; obscene pictures and blasphemous cartoons are not actionable in my book.

Why then, the two exceptions listed above? I view them as examples of breach of implicit contract, or, in some cases as initiation of force. The people on the theatre, or your friend in the mountain, have an implicit expectation (as long as you have not told them otherwise) that you will not shout ‘fire’ without reason or cause them to fall to their death.

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