Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Free Speech Issues

Since I came back from my vacation, I have seen a lot of issues that relate to the subject of free speech.

(1) Jesse Jackson and other black leaders are calling on the entertainment industry to ban the use of ‘the N-word’ (a.k.a., ‘nigger’). When asked whether this is a violation of free speech, Jackson answered that “It is unprotected.”

(2) Lowell City (Mass.) Councilor Edward Caulfield's is saying that his right to start civic meetings with a prayer is protected by his right to free speech. A letter to the editor says that officials have no right to free speech.

(3) An atheist student is suspended for questioning the beliefs of another student.

I want to address these issues and draw a clearer view of the scope of a right to free speech.

The N-Word

Jackson defends his call to eliminate the N-Word from ‘free speech issues’ by saying that the word is “unprotected.”

He does not understand the moral concept of free speech.

Use of the N-Word is, in fact, protected free speech. This means that it is not permissible (it is worthy of moral condemnation and, perhaps, punishment) to respond to somebody’s use of the N-word with violence - including the violence of criminal penalties. Saying that using the N-word is protected free speech does not imply any restrictions on the private actions that people may take - where to shop, what to buy, what to read, where to visit, and what they ask or attempt to privately pressure others into doing.

No violation of free speech took place when people condemned Michael Richards for using the word ‘nigger’ in his rant. Condemning Mr. Richards and efforts to punish him financially by refusing to buy products that he was involved in are perfectly legitimate acts that will go unpunished in the criminal law – and do not violate Mr. Richard’s right to free speech.

The Case of the Bigoted Councilman

Next, allow me to apply this to the case of Lowell City Councilor Edward Caulfield, who is defending the act of starting each Council meeting with a prayer as an act of free speech. This prompted a letter to the Boston Globe from Dan Caless that carries the headline, “Officials have no right to 'free speech'”

This headline is actually misleading. What Mr. Caless actually wrote was, “But the government most emphatically does not have a right to freedom of speech.” Caless said nothing about government officials.

Actually, as Caless states, nobody is depriving Mr. Caulfield’s right to free speech. Nowhere did Caless write that Mr. Caulfield shall be subject to violence, including legal penalties, for claiming that he thought that council meetings should start with a prayer. What Caless objected to was the prayer itself.

A district attorney has the right to free speech that allows him to advocate, if he thinks it is wise, for a program to round up all of the atheists in his community and lock them up in a concentration camp – in order to protect the children from their corruption. However, until whatever governments have jurisdiction over the area actually pass laws establishing such a program, the DA lacks the authority to actually round up atheists and lock them in concentration camps. More importantly, it makes absolutely no sense to defend such a law on the ground that the DA (and others who would round up atheists and put them in concentration camps) have a ‘right to free speech.’ Once we start talking about legislation we are no longer talking about speech, we are talking about actions.

The right to free speech would protect Mr. Caulfield from violence if he were to stand up himself and say that women were intellectually inferior and should be ignored at council meetings. However, it is a different thing entirely to use freedom of speech to defend a resolution that will have the council read a statement at the start of each session that says, “Women are intellectually inferior to men and that nothing that any woman might say at any Council meeting shall be taken with these facts in mind.”

Furthermore, while the right to free speech condemns any who would react with violence to the councilman’s private words, they permit people from using those words as reasons for their private actions – in particular, the private actions of who to vote for, whose campaign to contribute to, and whose campaign to volunteer for. The councilman has no right to complain if his bigoted statements result in fewer campaign contributions, political endorsements, or votes.

A common response to this would be to say that a meeting that does not mention God is atheistic, and thus represents forcing the atheist ‘religion’ on everybody else. Saying that refusing to mention a position on God is atheistic is nonsense. It is like saying that the person who does not mention the color of his car is saying that his car is colorless.

The opposite of prayer at a public meeting would be a public statement to the effect that, “We assembled here today assert and affirm our belief that no God exists.” Anybody who would object to such a statement, who recognizes the moral relevance of the claim “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” should be able to readily see the morally objectionable aspect of a ceremony that asserts, “We assembled here today assert and affirm our belief that God exists.” Any who would support one of these options who would not support the other is guilty of the moral crime of hypocrisy.

The Case of the Expelled Atheist

The third case that I want to discuss involves a student who is claiming to have been expelled from an art college because he is an atheist – or, more specifically, because he challenged the irrational beliefs of some fellow students.

Actually, I am not going to pass judgment on whether this student was actually expelled for atheism or, as the school officials contend, for a habit of disruptive behavior. I cannot count the number of times I have heard theists shout, “Help! I’m being oppressed!” by claiming that hostility to religion motivated a teacher’s refusal to accept some student’s faith-based project. Often (though not always) the teacher did not reject the project because it was faith-based but because it did not meet the requirements for the project. I find it morally objectionable for theists to automatically assume that the teachers are guilty, and will not engage in that practice myself.

On the other hand, prejudice typically masks itself as ‘other reasons’. The employer who thinks that blondes are stupid will give a blonde woman’s comments an interpretation that will match his assumption that she is stupid. In the face of such a prejudice, the woman has no chance of saying anything that the bigot will give an intelligent interpretation to. Similarly, the teacher who believes that atheists are arrogant, selfish, and immoral will assign an arrogant, selfish, immoral motive to anything the atheist does. There is nothing that the atheist can do that the teacher cannot interpret with a negative spin.

Is this what happened in this case?

I do not know, and I will not speculate.

Bob Averill, the student in question, said that the school administrators approached him with the attitude that discussing religion in school was not permitted.

If true, it would be an absurd position for the school to take. It would mean that they could not discuss such things as geology and the age of the earth, paleontology, ancient history (anything that might conflict with any of hundreds of different religious stories that people might hold), psychology – out of fear of offending the scientologists, blood transfusions, medicine (or the idea that bacteria and viruses – rather than alienation from God) is the cause of disease.

Any assertion to the effect that “God exists” implies “It is not the case that God does not exist,” just as the assertion that “God does not exist” implies “It is not the case that God exists.”

If this were an actual policy, conversation itself would have to be banned.

The principles that I discussed above suggests that the question the school should be asking is whether Averill said or did anything that could reasonably be interpreted as a threat of violence. They need to ask others, “Did Mr Averill threaten you in any way?” If the answer is ‘No’, then it should not matter what opinion he was expressing. He was within his rights to do so.

I should add that one of the principles I have defended is that the right to freedom of speech is not a barrier to private actions. A private school has the right to decide for itself the criteria under which it will interact with others. If it wishes to advertise itself as a school where religious people need not fear having their beliefs challenged, then it would be within its rights to establish a policy that prohibits students from challenging the beliefs of others. I would offer that it would be a very poor school to attend, but it is their private right to create a poor school.


The main principle that I have put to use here is the idea that freedom of speech means a freedom from a violent response to one’s words – whether it takes the form of private violence or government (criminal) penalties. It does not imply a right to be immune from criticism. Nor does it imply a right to compel others to treat those words with respect.

Jesse Jackson does not need to worry about free speech issues in his project to eliminate ‘the N-word’ from entertainment. The right to free speech does not imply any restrictions on his private, non-violent actions. Instead, it prohibits him from calling for violence (including criminal penalties) against those who say what he does not like.

On the other hand, a city council’s resolution that theists are superior to atheists is not an element of free speech, it is an element of government action and one that violates the principle that peaceful citizens of all religions are entitled to equal respect before the law.

And schools, interested in the education of their students, should be happy when its students enter into disagreement and debate. This should not be discouraged – unless and until the disputants actually threaten each other. At that point, the discussion has gone too far, and the school must step in to protect its students from harm.

1 comment:

GuruOfReason said...

Newt Gingrich, and now Jesse Jackson. Perhaps, it is time to move to Canada, or maybe even build a free society in space.