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Free Speech: No Exceptions




Within the free speech movement, there is a small set of individuals that refer to themselves as ‘free speech absolutists.’ This is a title we should all proudly embrace, even though some would argue these people are endangering democracy.

A free speech absolutist supports free speech in every possible way, rejecting any exceptions to the rule. Once an exception to the rule is introduced, this paves the way for other exceptions, including those that can be expanded and exploited, like an exception for so-called ‘hate speech’.

The exception for hate speech is at the core of the free speech debate. The more radical authoritarians seek to exploit the rule by including offensive words, microaggressions, and other relatively harmless words under the hate speech label. The absurdity of declaring words as hateful based on something as subjective as offense is quite clear to anyone that values freedom of speech.

Some European nations have passed hate speech laws banning Holocaust denial. Granting that there is no validity to Holocaust denial, these exceptions to free speech are nonetheless dangerous. When it becomes illegal to hold certain opinions, who decides which opinions should be illegal? There’s no doubt that the unpopular opinions outside of the Overton Window will be the first to go.

Even if we ignore the above slippery slope argument, we must wonder about a possible Streisand Effect. Laws banning fringe views such as Holocaust denial may shine an unnecessary spotlight onto these views that draw more people in. If the government were to ban public expressions of libertarian thought, we can guarantee that this would firmly root libertarians in their beliefs rather than deter them. In fact, libertarians would brag about this and use it as a marketing tool for recruiting.

The most commonly accepted forms of hate speech are calls for acts of physical violence. For legitimate cases of people clearly and willingly advocating direct violence (as opposed to actions that some would consider indirect forms of violence, like taxation or ownership of violence), this is not a free speech issue. The problem is not the speech itself, but the violence resulting from it.

If an individual were to openly recommend that his or her listeners initiate violence against a person or group, the crime itself is the violence that results. The person speaking is intentionally causing violence, and can thus be held responsible for the violence that results from this. Again, the crime in this case is violence, not speech. This situation is similar to if a person hired an assassin to kill someone. The act of murder still falls upon the person hiring the assassin. But just because a verbal order is involved does not mean this is a free speech issue.

As for cases involving the promotion of totalitarian ideologies, this is where free speech is the most controversial, but still must be guaranteed.

First, there is the pragmatic argument. As mentioned earlier, banning the speech of any ideology puts it into the spotlight, and people desire that which they are not allowed to have, including opinions.

Second, there isn’t a clear definition on what constitutes a violent ideology. For libertarians, any ideology advocating an increase in state power is a violent ideology. For anarcho-capitalists, even minarchism can be labeled a violent ideology. For communists, any system advocating private property is considered violent. What classifies an ideology as violent can be construed to fit the definition of those in power at the time.

To protect free speech, we must make no exception for any form that could be subjectively defined as a call for violence. If a certain speech can be proven to be a direct, objectively verifiable cause of physical violence, this ceases to become a free speech issue and instead becomes an issue with violence.

While hate speech is the most commonly argued exception to free speech, there are a few other issues that are mistakenly considered exceptions to free speech.

The most well known is the exception for shouting fire in a crowded theater. This is not a free speech issue. In this scenario, the only rational purpose for this would be to cause panic. Similar to direct calls for violence, any punishment upon the speaker would be for the obvious expected results from said speech. The speaker would be liable for any injuries or deaths resulting from the chaos. It also would not be considered censorship if the theatre decided to ban him or her for lost time and money caused by the speaker. To reiterate, the punishment is due to the obvious direct results from the speech, not the speech itself.

Another issue mistaken by a select few as a free speech issue would be the insanely immoral act of child pornography. The claim is that since media is a form of speech, and pornography is a form of media, child pornography is also a form of speech, and an exception must be made.

But, once again, this is not a free speech issue. To accept this as a free speech issue would be to imply that the cameras are the problem. Turning off these cameras would not make the act itself any less horrid. This is an issue of child abuse, and free speech absolutists would not condone this in any way.

Speech is the preferable alternative to violence. When speech is restricted, violence will fill the void. To stop violence, we must protect free speech. No exceptions.

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Nathan A. Kreider is the host of The Conversation, a podcast about ideas and how to spread them. He also publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]

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