1.20.2008

a defence of free speech

I don't share all of this man's beliefs. I'm not worried about "political Islam" taking over the West, and I doubt the women on the Human Rights Commission will be wearing head scarfs anytime soon. But I love his defence of freedom of expression, and his rejection of the overly elastic definition of human rights.

He and I may not subscribe to the same checklist of values, or even align in the same quadrant of the political compass. But this rant is excellent. I wholeheartedly agree with his robust defence of freedom of expression, and why we need it.


Thanks, as always, to James.

30 comments:

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Hmm.

I don't necessarily disagree with him on this particular issue, but I do strongly disagree with free speech fundamentalism (or as they call it in the U.S., First Amendment absolutism). Far from "if we let free speech erode even slightly, it'll be the slippery slope," I've actually observed (and again here and here) that the absolutist American approach to free speech can lead to unfreer speech in practical terms. It boils down to ideology taking precedence over real-world repercussions, and as a pragmatist, I can't go along with that.

Again, this isn't in reference to this particular issue, but all the free speech fundamentalism thing that I've seen these arguments giving rise to lately has struck me as being pretty misguided.

L-girl said...

I/P, thanks for your thoughts. I'll read the posts you linked to.

James said...

I've actually observed (and again here and here) that the absolutist American approach to free speech can lead to unfreer speech in practical terms.

This is similar to the observation I've seen in a few places that the US's approach to separation of Church & State has led to less religious freedom than in, say, European countries which have state Churches. You are far less likely to get religious interference in politics in the UK, where the Head of State is also the Head of the State Church, than you are in the US. It's been hypothesized that the political activity of the religious right is largely driven by a reaction to being perceived as excluded from government; if there had been a "Christian Democratic" party floating around, the far-right Christians wouldn't have been able to get the traction they have.

L-girl said...

This is similar to the observation I've seen in a few places that the US's approach to separation of Church & State has led to less religious freedom than in, say, European countries which have state Churches. You are far less likely to get religious interference in politics in the UK, where the Head of State is also the Head of the State Church, than you are in the US. It's been hypothesized that the political activity of the religious right is largely driven by a reaction to being perceived as excluded from government; if there had been a "Christian Democratic" party floating around, the far-right Christians wouldn't have been able to get the traction they have.

It's an interesting theory. The observation of the UK vs US is certainly true.

OTOH, other European countries such as Spain, Italy and Ireland have had to radically break from the Catholic Church's influence, with varying degrees of success.

Amy said...

As a free speech absolutist as well as one who is horrified by the idea of a state religion, I am fascinated by the posts by IP and James. I have no defense for the US's covert operations and investigations, but I doubt very much that they are caused by our free speech rights. The government would be just ask sneaky and secretive on such things that relate, in its view, to national security, with or without a First Amendment. I just don't buy that causal connection. At least with the First Amendment we know that those who wish to speak out against such things will be able to do so.

With respect to religion, I just don't see how having a state religion would make me, a Jew, feel any less threatened or more free than I do as a Jew in the United States right now. When people speak of the US as a Christian country, I cringe. If it were in fact the case that the government was Christian, I would fear for my right to practice my religion as a member of a minority. I just don't follow your logic, James. Perhaps you can elaborate?

James said...

OTOH, other European countries such as Spain, Italy and Ireland have had to radically break from the Catholic Church's influence, with varying degrees of success.

Germany and Holland are other examples of countries with no official Church-State separation but declines in religious influence in politics as well.

As for Pat Condell, he's done a number of very smart and insightful rants, though I find that he often conflates Islamic extremists with Muslims in general much the same way as the Christian theocrats he objects to do.

BTW, it seems that Mike Huckabee has some ties to Christian Reconstructionist groups -- extreme Christian groups dedicated to replacing the Constitution with a new set of rules derived from the Old Testament. One famous sub-group is the Society for the Practical Establishment and Perpetuation of the Ten Commandments, who want to, among other things, bring back stoning for adultery, homosexuality, and cursing one's parents.

L-girl said...

Here's a review of a new book by Anthony Lewis. I really like Lewis.

I don't share his more optimistic and heroic view of the US - although he certainly shares all of our very critical view of the current state of the US.

From the review:

Throughout his long career as an author and a reporter and columnist for The New York Times, Anthony Lewis has been one of the most inspiring advocates of a heroic view of the American judiciary. Each year I read aloud to my criminal procedure students the final paragraphs of "Gideon’s Trumpet," Lewis's definitive account of the 1963 Supreme Court case that recognized a constitutional right to court-appointed counsel. They never fail to bring a lump to the throat — at least to mine. In his new book, "Freedom for the Thought That We Hate," Lewis offers a similarly heroic account of how courageous judges in the 20th century created the modern First Amendment by prohibiting the government from banning offensive speech, except to prevent a threat of serious and imminent harm. "Many of the great advances in the quality — the decency — of American society were initiated by judges," he writes. "The truth is that bold judicial decisions have made the country what it is."

It's easy to see why Lewis came to view judges as brave protectors of First Amendment rights: he covered the Supreme Court during the Warren era, when the modern First Amendment took shape, and he recalls Justice Felix Frankfurter's showing him an eloquent 1929 dissent by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. that defended the free speech rights of Quakers and pacifists and that inspired the title of this book. "When I came to the final paragraph," Lewis says, "I felt the hair rise on the back of my neck." But this is not a comprehensive narrative history of the development of the modern First Amendment; Lewis already provided that in his 1991 book, "Make No Law." Instead, it is a passionate if discursive essay that ranges across a variety of free speech controversies — from sedition and obscenity to hate speech and secret wiretapping. This may seem like winner's history, but the victories Lewis celebrates remain controversial. There are persistent voices, in Europe and America, that continue to argue for suppressing hate speech on university campuses, for example; Lewis rightly applauds the fact that American courts have rejected their arguments.


Sounds like good reading.

Note who the book's title refers to: Quakers and pacifists. We get accustomed to defending hate speech. Sometimes we forget the most endangered speech is often peace-speak.

L-girl said...

As for Pat Condell, he's done a number of very smart and insightful rants, though I find that he often conflates Islamic extremists with Muslims in general much the same way as the Christian theocrats he objects to do.

Right, that's my problem with the one I posted. He draws the distinction about ordinary Muslims in Canada, but it feels like too little, too late.

L-girl said...

Amy, I agree with you entirely.

I think the theory James is pointing out (which he didn't say he subscribes to) contemplates that the establishment of a state religion may have inadvertantly led to more freedom of religion - not that it necessarily follows that one would lead to the other.

Is that essentially correct, James?

L-girl said...

BTW, it seems that Mike Huckabee has some ties to Christian Reconstructionist groups -- extreme Christian groups dedicated to replacing the Constitution with a new set of rules derived from the Old Testament. One famous sub-group is the Society for the Practical Establishment and Perpetuation of the Ten Commandments, who want to, among other things, bring back stoning for adultery, homosexuality, and cursing one's parents.

Wow, Huckabee is a real wacko.

An interesting thing, to me, is how Ron Paul gets a pass on many of his more wingnutty ideas.

All you have to be is a perceived as an outsider and so many people to give you a pass. There's so much disaffection, so much discontent with the establishment in both parties, that many voters are willing to embrace any outsider, no matter what s/he stands for.

redsock said...

I would love for Huckabee to seriously try to bring back all of the Old Testament laws. ... Hilarity.

P.S. Here is your depressing news of the day. Why go to the trouble of hiding any hint of criminality? It's not like the media will tell anyone about it.

L-girl said...

Allan, people will think you're getting special privileges about blatantly off-topic posting.

redsock said...

Sorry, the Huckabee-style Bible fun is here.

redsock said...

people will think you're getting special privileges about blatantly off-topic posting

I'm not?

...

I thought anything with Lego is allowed at any time.

L-girl said...

I thought anything with Lego is allowed at any time.

Oh yes, I forgot. Laura's Law of Lego.

(Were those Lego? I thought they were Weebles.)

(Just looked again. I guess they're a little angular for Weebles.)

(Carry on.)

redsock said...

Laura's Law of Lego

Yes, the 3-L Off-Topic Exemption (hereinafter referred to as "LLLOTE").

L-girl said...

LLLOTE

Isn't a psychotropic plant native to Central America?

Amy said...

Lego Bible!! I love it. (Wasn't it here recently that we were all remembering favorite non-sexist toys, including Legos?)

redsock said...

Someone spent a lot of time on that project! ... It took me a minute to notice the arrows at the top left and right to click back and forth through each story.

L-girl said...

(Wasn't it here recently that we were all remembering favorite non-sexist toys, including Legos?)

Yes, it was!

Lego is the one thing I miss about being a nanny, or having Lego-age nieces and nephews.

Amy said...

I had to click through a few sections before I could tell whether this was a serious attempt to retell Bible stories with Legos or tongue-in-cheek. The dead giveaway (though I had figured it out before this) was the segment on bestiality.

Now...in a state where there is no freedom of religion and/or freedom of expression, would this be tolerated? Mocking the Bible?

You can be sure that the Huckabees of the world would not be happy with that version of the Bible.

gito said...

Hey L, just wanted to say that we watch this guy all the time! He is pretty good.

David Cho said...

I'm not worried about "political Islam" taking over the West,

This has been one of the greatest mysteries to me since 9-11.

Liberals spend very little time worrying about Islam taking over the West.

In the mean time, the Pat Robertsons and James Dobsons of the world, who share more in common with the Taliban obsessively stroke fears over Islam taking over the West.

- Keep women in their place. Check!
- Illegalize abortion (including cases of rape and incest) Check!
- Illegalize homosexuality. Check!
- Go to war at the drop of a hat. MEGA CHECK!

When will they realize that they are bosom buddies cut from the same cloth?

The irony is rich. And the same group of people are paranoid with Mexicans taking over the United States. Mexican Catholics or Islamic Middle Easterners? Make up your mind, please.

Why aren't you worried, Laura?

L-girl said...

Hey L, just wanted to say that we watch this guy all the time! He is pretty good.

Hi Gito! Yeah, I've heard he's very popular on YouTube.

L-girl said...

David, how nice to see you.

In the mean time, the Pat Robertsons and James Dobsons of the world, who share more in common with the Taliban obsessively stroke fears over Islam taking over the West. ... When will they realize that they are bosom buddies cut from the same cloth?

So true! Also a very good observation about Mexico. Everyone's about to take over the mighty US - while the US is busy actually taking over other countries. Funny how that works.

Why aren't you worried, Laura?

I'm not sure if you mean this seriously or you're joking?

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

I have no defense for the US's covert operations and investigations, but I doubt very much that they are caused by our free speech rights. The government would be just ask sneaky and secretive on such things that relate, in its view, to national security, with or without a First Amendment. I just don't buy that causal connection.

You may be right--there's no way to know, of course. But if there were a provision in U.S. law for, say, filling the rooms where the secret trials with reporters but demanding that they not report on what they saw until the immediate security threat had passed, then I would breathe a little bit easier. After all, I would know that a) those reporters would know what had gone on and would cry foul if something too awful was afoot, and b) those reporters would get to someday tell us all exactly what had happened. Without that provision, though, the public is left completely in the dark rather than only temporarily in the dark.

I'll take real free speech (even if it's temporarily compromised) over on-paper free speech anyday, thankyouverymuch.

L-girl said...

I don't understand any connection between the two, either. Restricting free speech isn't going to make the US government more honest. Maybe I'm not understanding something.

Amy said...

There are very few "secret trials" in the US, so this is not an issue that would make it worth otherwise sacrificing free speech. The press has access to almost anything that happens, and sometimes they report more than anyone wants to know, e.g., Brittany Spears. Those rare situations where trials and hearings are closed in the name of national security almost always lead to quite a large amount of protest and eventually disclosure, as in the Plame case referred to above. I would rather preserve rules that prohibit muzzling the press than run the risk of inhibiting that press.

redsock said...

There are very few "secret trials" in the US

How would you know -- if they are secret?

The press has access to almost anything that happens ... Those rare situations where trials and hearings are closed in the name of national security almost always lead to quite a large amount of protest and eventually disclosure

Now when it comes to the US's world-wide network of secret prisons and whatever hearings, decisions and executions occur in them. Tens of thousands of people could have been rounded up around the world, jailed, and then murdered. How would we know? The elected officials in Washington (in both parties) don't seem to give a shit and the press, if they know anything more than what has been reported so far, are content to keep this horrific information to themselves.

Amy said...

Well, of course, I can't know for sure what I don't know. But I believe that there is still a vigorous enough press out there that would uncover and report such trials. As we have seen with Guantanamo trials and the abuses there, eventually these things get reported. Yes, there may be much more, but my overall point is that the general rule in this country is that trials are public and open (with some exceptions to protect privacy of minors, for example). There is no provision in US law that I know of that allows a court to prohibit the press to report on what is going on in a public hearing, although the press often chooses not to reveal, for example, the names of rape victims or of minors charged with crimes.