David R. Henderson  

What Obligations Does Freedom of Speech Carry?

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Kenneth Grubbs, a friend on Facebook and press secretary for Dana Rohrabacher, a Congressman representing the 48th Congressional District of California, writes:

The right to free speech also means acknowledging when to remain silent--a discipline Pam Geller never mastered.

[Ken gave me permission to quote him.]

My response: No it doesn't. Everyone--and that includes fools, idiots, and toxic people--has the right to free speech. We can argue about whether Pam Geller should have taunted Muslims the way she did. I'm generally against such taunting. Also I have argued elsewhere against one of Ms. Geller's causes: preventing the building of a mosque in Manhattan near the site of most of the 9/11 murders. But in the current case, one in which she encouraged people to draw Mohammad, I'm in favor of what she did, at least if I understand it correctly. It's a matter of context. If some people threaten others with death for drawing pictures of someone they hold sacred, it becomes important for some other people to take a stand and do the very thing that others were threatened for doing. Indeed, there could be a huge positive externality in Ms. Geller's actions: giving others courage to exercise their freedom of speech by speaking out against any religion--or any other cause--they wish to.

This is no different in principle from the young man who recently defied President Obama's restriction on financially supporting Edward Snowden by contributing a small amount of Bitcoin to Snowden, although Ms. Geller is on stronger legal ground.

But let's say you disagree with me about the wisdom, propriety, or ethics of Pam Geller's actions.

Fine. So disagree.

But don't go around saying, as Kenneth Grubbs does, that freedom of speech means acknowledging when to remain silent. It doesn't. Even people who never shut up have the right to speak. I agree with Kenneth Grubbs that it would be nice for people to exercise good judgment. But free speech carries no such obligation.

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COMMENTS (31 to date)
Kenneth Grubbs writes:

But David, of course I'm right. The right to speak carries with it the corresponding right not to speak. Wisdom obliges us sometimes to remain silent. Simple as that. All I'm saying. Your externality is an interesting one, but you're edging up close to making that an obligation, and it is offset by the externality of finding ways to work with Muslims -- and I've met them -- who want nothing to do with the violent jihadists. The bad ones surely are among us, and we didn't need Geller to draw them out.

ColoComment writes:

I am reminded of Natan Sharansky's "town square" test for freedom:

"If a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society. We cannot rest until every person living in a "fear society" has finally won their freedom." (Sharansky, The Case for Democracy. 2004.)

Lively political discussion and debate used to be the life blood of our republic; now some tell people they disagree with to sit down and shut up?

ECharles writes:

1. It's not a "free speech" issue. The 1st amendment deals with government restrictions, which does not exist in this situation. Killing someone for drawing cartoons is a criminal issue, not a speech issue.

2. Pam Gellar is the one in favoring of speech banning by government. See her position on Muslims, speech, and the 9/11 Memorial. She is a hypocrite.

3. Outside the narrow case of "free speech" in the context of the 1st amendment, speech is not "free" since it's based on where you are. She can say what she wants assuming she has the permission of property owners. Otherwise, speech restrictions prevail.

Sieben writes:
The right to speak carries with it the corresponding right not to speak.

That's not what your quote in David's post said. Saying a right means an "acknowledgment" is a positive duty.

Maybe that's not what you meant to say, in which case you should have simply claimed that you misspoke.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Kenneth Grubbs,
Sieben has handled your claim well. Thanks, Sieben.
It’s both a free speech issue and a criminal issue. If you threaten me for speaking, you are both committing a crime and violating my freedom of speech. Notice that I didn’t say a thing about the First Amendment. You’re right that the 1st Amendment does deal with government restrictions on speech, specifically Congressional restrictions, but other people can violate freedom of speech too. If there were a 40th Amendment saying that Congress shall not abridge the right to life, that does not mean that a private actor who murders someone does not abridge the right to life.

ECharles writes:

If someone kills you for whatever reason, it's murder. Just because it's for a drawing, doesn't make it a "free speech" murder/issue.

Geller is needlessly provoking (but has the right to) and is a hypocrite by making it a free speech issue because it isn't and she is the only one in the picture that is calling for bans on protected speech.

Kenneth Grubbs writes:

David, in all that I've written/posted about this over the past few days I have repeatedly made the distinction between a First Amendment issue and a free speech issue. Geller's right has never been in doubt. We should also acknowledge -- sorry, Seiben -- the negative right not to speak. Do note, please, that the featured speaker at her event was Geert Wilders, who has, I believe, called for a ban on the Koran. Not exactly paladins of free speech, any of them.

Jeff writes:

It would seem that a non-trivial percentage of Muslims believe that vigilante murder is an appropriate punishment for blasphemy. That makes me think we need more blasphemy, not less. Let a thousand Draw Mohammed Festivals flourish.

In contrast, your exhortations to "remain silent" strike me as a kind of capitulation to the murderous, calling it wisdom. It is more akin to cowardice.

Jay writes:

To be fair, Geert Wilders called for a ban in his home country of Holland, not the U.S., which doesn't have a first amendment and already bans books deemed to be hateful which he claims it is.

I'm still not satisfied with Kenneth's response to Seiben, what is an acknowledgement to a negative right not to speak exactly and how is it obligated by freedom of speech?

Charlie writes:

"Indeed, there could be a huge positive externality in Ms. Geller's actions: giving others courage to exercise their freedom of speech by speakong out against any religion--or any other cause--they wish to."

You aren't even going to attempt to weigh this against the hurt caused to many Muslims? It reminds me of "Piss Christ" and "Dung Virgin Mary." Yes, of course, these are legal uses of speech. But they are also mean uses of speech. Trying to insult someone's religion, trying to desecrate something some innocent person holds sacred is a rotten thing to do. Burning an American flag is completely legal, and I strongly believe it should always be legal. But I don't burn flags, because I know it really hurts some people, and I don't want to be a jerk.

In many cases, we have well preserved rights to be a jerk, but that doesn't mean we should be jerks.

vikingvista writes:

Speaking of rights seems to create a fog, causing people to argue past one another, with one person arguing legal rights and the other social propriety.

The two can be brought together by focusing instead on what deserves to happen to someone who acts a certain way. Does provoking homicidal maniacs deserve verbal admonishment? Perhaps, depending upon the circumstances. Perhaps it even deserves praise. Does it deserve a death sentence? Few Americans would think so.

Steve J writes:

@Charlie - are you suggesting we need to weigh all of our actions based on the mental hurt we may cause to other people? By this measure it would not be very fun to be in the minority on any contentious issue.

Charlie writes:

Yes Steve J, presumably you do this all the time in your daily life and are kind and courteous to your fellow humans. If you never do this, you are a monster.

NZ writes:

David, I was on your side until you said this:

Indeed, there could be a huge positive externality in Ms. Geller's actions: giving others courage to exercise their freedom of speech by speakong [sic] out against any religion--or any other cause--they wish to.
When we encourage each other to trample on everything that even our own fathers held sacred, what kind of society will be left to withstand the force of those who DO believe in sacred things and are willing to fight to defend them?

It does no good to put out one hand to fend off an attacker if your other hand is reaching for your own throat. A nation steeped in self-hatred will always attract--and deserve--the hatred of other nations as well.

Steve J writes:

@Charlie - you are correct I do avoid what I would call direct insults. The context of this discussion is more around conflicting philosophies rather than for example calling someone fat. Am I being a jerk if I say I disagree with someone's culture/religion/ideas? That is not an insult to the person but rather objecting to something the person believes in. This is where I think Mr. Henderson was going with his comment saying in essence beliefs should be fair game for criticism.

I actually like it when people criticize my beliefs. It gives me the opportunity to learn something. It is possible if someone's beliefs are based more on tradition than logic criticism may not be as welcome. But since beliefs lead to actions we cannot allow incorrect beliefs to go unquestioned.

Jon Murphy writes:

Everyone has the right to free speech.

But knowing when to hold your tongue is wisdom.

Charlie writes:

@Steve J

This isn't an open and enlightened dialectic. This is walking into a church and urinating on the alter. This is wiping your bottom with an American flag. They are quite purposefully just trying to take something millions of innocent Muslims find sacred and desecrate it. That is the purpose.

It's a mean thing to do.

Steve J writes:

@Charlie - I think the flag comparison is correct. Urinating on an altar is damaging someone else's property so I think in a different category. I would say drawing cartoons here is very similar to burning our flag there.

Maybe I am missing something by not having empathy for inanimate objects but it is hard for me to understand calling these actions mean. Most Christians think Muslims are incorrect in their beliefs and destined to burn eternally in hell. Yet drawing a cartoon is the mean part?

I'm not trying to be dense I somewhat understand your argument but it is hard to get past the fact getting upset about these things is irrational.

Alex writes:

She has the right to do it, and the government the obligation to protect her
That said, is not something morally correct. She is putting herself and the police in charge of protecting her in danger, and she does so by going out of her way and provoking. She deliberately tries to provoke.

martin writes:
If some people threaten others with death for drawing pictures of someone they hold sacred, it becomes important for some other people to take a stand and do the very thing that others were threatened for doing.

Wasn't that the point of the "je suis Charlie" thing you opposed?

David R. Henderson writes:

Wasn't that the point of the "je suis Charlie" thing you opposed?
Good question. Here’s what I see as the difference. I was arguing in the earlier post that the distinction between freedom of speech and content of speech is so important--and not given the attention it deserved--that one should not conflate defending freedom of speech with defending the content of speech. One should, in short, always distinguish between the two. I did so in this current post also.

David R. Henderson writes:

I forgot to respond to your other point. You wrote:
2. Pam Geller is the one in favor of speech banning by government. See her position on Muslims, speech, and the 9/11 Memorial. She is a hypocrite.
You’re right. That has approximately zero to do with this discussion. Many people use their freedom of speech to argue for restricting speech. That includes Pam Geller, Nazis, Communists, some progressives, and some conservatives. Their freedom of speech should still be respected.

ColoComment writes:

Mark Perry does one of his great Venn diagrams on the topic:


Charlie writes:

@Steve J

If it helps you understand the point, you can it imagine the alter urinator is whoever has a legal right to urinate on the alter.

Maybe he or she does it in front of the whole congregation and all the clergy. Maybe they spit or even defecate as well. Maybe they shout some swear words. Try imaging it across different faiths and services.

You are still filing that under--not a jerk thing to do? Perfectly moral and acceptable behavior, since an alter is just an inanimate object?

The unconditional freedom to commit blasphemy is one of the most important conquests of open societies. I find it fascinating that after so many centuries of human development there are yet those who think that the state should not protect but destroy this freedom.

Echarles writes:

David- Can you define what you mean by "freedom of speech"? I CAN'T say whatever I want at work, the mall or at your house, right? You CAN say what you want at home based on ownership rights- no "speech rights" are necessary or even relevant.

Mark V Anderson writes:

For the most part commenters are talking past each other here. I THINK most of us would agree that even though everyone has the right to free speech, it is still a bad thing to be a jerk and deliberately provoke someone. And in fact we see that all the time in partisan discussions, and it only hurts civil discussion.

But this is a special case. We saw people killed for their speech in Paris. Those who deliberately draw pictures of Mohammed to provoke Muslims are doing it to protest the attitude of those who believe that we don't have this right. Yes, it does provoke even those Muslims who don't have this attitude. But this is an extremely important principle to uphold, so perhaps it is worth the provocation. On the other hand, it is possible that provocation makes more people believe that Mohammed drawers should be prosecuted or even killed. I have mixed feelings.

ECharles writes:

Mark- my main objection as a libertarian is against those conservatives and libertarian who keep making it a free speech and constitutional issue. These fanatics will kill people for a myriad of reasons, drawing cartoons being just one of them. These are just symptoms though. Isn't the fundamental issue one of blind faith and religion? If you believe in obligation to commands specified in the Koran, aren't these fanatics being faithful to those commands? That most people don't go that far seems irrelevant to me. How about having a convention about religion vs literal interpretation?

Commander writes:

I wonder what Natan Sharansky thinks about the Gayssot Act.

Hazel Meade writes:

One point I think may be missed in this discussion is that "blasphemy" restrictions usually only apply to the faithful, of any particular faith. Taking God's name in vain is only a sin if you're a Christian. It shouldn't matter if you aren't. But in this case, Muslims seem to want to force non-Muslims to respect Muslim blasphemies. As a non-Muslim, Mohammed means absolutely nothing to me, nor does drawing an image of a "icon", so I'm not committing any kind of blasphemy by doing it. I'm not violating any religious commitment or belief. If I'm not a Muslim, then it's not a sin for me because that isn't one of my religious commandments.

NZ writes:

@Hazel Meade:

Your error is to call these "Muslim blasphemies."

Earnestly-held religious faith is more fundamental than creed. It's a belief about the very real order of the universe. To a Muslim, your being a non-Muslim has no bearing on the fact that you blasphemed. The Muslim just has double-dirt on you: 1) you blasphemed and 2) you rejected Allah.

It's not like state laws or something, where Ohioans accept that "Yeah, here in Ohio you can't drink in your car while for people in Texas that's okay and everyone agrees on it."

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