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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Free Speech

Free Speech is critical to a functioning democracy.  Every jerk out there has the right to say what he or she thinks, as long as they are not shouting "Fire" in a crowded theater, as the saying goes.  But, the more sensitive among us are concerned about "hate speech."  In this case it was posters that showed a woman in a burka with an AK-47 in one hand and a baby with a simulated bomb in the other hand and the words along the top of the poster saying:  "What did she teach her child today?"

The Campus Newspaper, The Diamondback, captured one student's outrage about the posters:
"There is a difference between free speech and hate speech," said government and politics and Spanish language and literature major Sana Javed, who helped to organize Palestinian Solidarity Week.  "They were an irrelevant commentary on Islam, but we were talking about politics."
One wonders what "government and politics major" Sana Javed thinks of the First Amendment? Her last quote in the student newspaper is:  "We want a campus of tolerance."

Here is the line from University of Maryland Vice President for Student Affairs Linda Clement:
There's such a thing as free speech.  But when you post things anonymously and make others feel threatened, that's not free speech.
This whole episode is discussed by Law Professor Eugene Volokh, at this location.  Responding to what he calls the "customary quote about the 'difference between free speech and hate speech,'" Professor Volokh writes:
No, there is no such difference under First Amendment law.  Nor does First Amendment law draw a distinction between "commentary on Islam" (or Christianity or Judaism or atheism or whatever else) and "talking about politics," since much commentary on religion is commentary on politics.
Free speech doesn't mean I have to agree with you, or you have to agree with me.  Lets get a grip, please.

Regards  --  Cliff


Craig H said...

Observing that the primary restrictions placed on John Walker Lindh were to prevent him from speaking freely, I would observe that our past presidential administration is deserving of charges of treason against our own Bill of Rights, too. (But I digress).

Freedom of Speech is our primary right--it's not the first amendment by accident. It's second, in my mind, only to our founding principle that all are created equal.

I've worried that "hate Speech" might be a slippery slope that seeks to qualify the "free" part of our free speech without ever really doing it fairly. Such should not be defined lightly or capriciously, because, as that judge opined about smut in that landmark court case way back when, "I know it when I see it" is hardly a standard on which to base a society.

I wonder if our statutes regarding assault might hold the necessary teeth to restrict improper expression, and that we might someday regard "hate speech" as lazy way to fast track prosecution, for which there are better means.

As barbarous as "fire" in a crowded theater might be, "fire" in a theater that only contains one particular ethnic and/or religious group is that much more craven and deserving of punishment.

C R Krieger said...

I think Kad Barma has made an important point--about "hate speech" prosecution being the lazy way to deal with those we find offensive.  Democracy is not for the lazy.  Dictatorship is for the lazy.

Thanks, Kad.

Regards  --  Cliff