Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Pledge Project: Freedom of Speech

When the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals releases its decision on 'under God' and 'In God We Trust' (somewhere between 0 and 32 days from now), one of the phrases that will certainly be thrown about is “Freedom of Speech”

This phrase is constantly misused. Sometimes it is out of ignorance, but there are those who love to exploit ignorance for rhetorical purposes. Its effect is to muddy the waters of public discourse to either conceal or distract people from the facts of come issue they are interested in promoting.

The type of problem that I am talking about surfaced in the recent blowup over the Kieffe & Sons Ford radio advertisement. The concept of 'a right to freedom of speech' was misused in the advertisement itself, and by those who criticized the advertisement. It was used in a way that suggests that mere criticism or condemnation of a person's position is a violation of freedom of speech.

Point: The right of freedom of speech is not violated until somebody threatens or uses violence against those who make certain claims. Unless and until a threat or actual use of violence occurs, the 'right to freedom of speech' is being respected.

In other words, Do not assert that somebody is violating your right to freedom of speech, and do not allow them to claim that you are violating their freedom of speech, until violence has been threatened or used against those who make particular claims.

Let’s look at how the right to freedom of speech was used within the advertisement itself. The advertisement said (after telling 14% of the population who do not believe in God to sit down and shut up):

I guess I just offended 14 per cent of the people who are listening to this message. Well, if that is the case then I say that's tough, this is America folks, it's called free speech.

Here, the right to freedom of speech is being used to deflect criticism. It is being used as if to say, 'Because we have a right to freedom of speech, we can ignore any and all criticism that might be made against what we say'.

However, even the Neo-Nazi and the KKK member has a right to freedom of speech. Their right to freedom of speech does not imply a right to immunity from criticism. If it did . . . well, I would like to hear Kieffe & Sons declare that because the KKK has a right to freedom of speech, it would be wrong to criticize them.

This fact tells us how we should be answering the person who says, "You might be offended by what I said. However, that’s tough. I have a right to freedom of speech."

The response should be something like,

This is, in fact, the response that one should be given when they make a bigoted statement and then assert the right to freedom of speech. "The Nazi and the KKK members also have a right to freedom of speech. This doesn’t mean that everything they say is right."

In other words, "You can't use your right to freedom of speech to hide from criticism."

I want to note that the right to freedom of religion is also misused in this way. People who claim a 'right to freedom of religion' often assert that this means a 'right to immunity from criticism'. It is now commonplace for the followers of any religion to assert, "If you say anything bad about my religion, my holy text, my prophet, my practices, or my positions on any social issue insofar as they are derived from scripture, you are violating my right to freedom of religion."

That’s not true. Here, too, the right to freedom of religion does not translate into a right to freedom from criticism. It implies only a right to freedom from violence. It would be wrong to padlock the doors of the church shut, to outlaw the scripture, and to arrest people who performed the (peaceful) practices of their religion. But it does not violate freedom of religion to condemn the person who holds absurd religious beliefs.

As long as the critic limits himself to the use of words and expressive language to condemn the followers of any given religion, no violation of the freedom of religion has taken place. The right to freedom of religion/speech does not imply a right to immunity from criticism.

The other example of a misuse of the freedom of speech comes from criticisms of the advertisement. The advertisement tells the 14% who do not believe in God to "sit down and shut up." Critics then responded that Kieffe & Sons is not showing respect for the right to freedom of speech.

However, telling people to 'sit down and shut up' does not violate anybody’s freedom of speech. They are not backing up their statement with any violence or any threat of violence. We are all still free to ignore their suggestion.

Many of us did ignore the suggestion – and we did so without reading the slightest hint of a call to violence in the advertisement against those who ignored the suggestion. I know, at least, that I could not find a call to violence within the advertisement. So, any claim that the advertisement displayed a lack of respect for freedom of speech is simply false. It is a misuse of the term.

One of the major problems with misusing the right to freedom of speech in criticizing the advertisement is that it promotes confusion. To the degree that people fail to appreciate that the right to freedom of speech is a right to immunity from violence (not a right to immunity from criticism), it makes it possible for people to misuse the phrase for rhetorical purposes. It makes it possible for people to exploit this confusion to defend things (like the Kieffe & Sons advertisement, and some extremely absurd belief systems) that are indefensible. It makes it possible for people to exploit the confusion to condemn others who have done nothing wrong.

Another problem with misusing the right to freedom of speech is that it serves as a distraction. Debate then gets side tracked on some worthless discussion rather than focusing on the real meat of the issue. In the case of the Kieffe & Sons advertisement, charges were thrown back and forth about freedom of speech being violated when it was not being violated. This took attention away from the issue that should have been discussed – whether we should assume that the majority position is always right and the minority position is always wrong.

The real point:

Kieffe & Sons was debating bigotry and defending in on the bases that the bigots are in the majority. However, imagine a Nazi saying, "86% of us believe that the Jews should die. We should tell the other 14% to sit down and shut up." We see this as a very poor argument. Kieffe & Sons needs to come up with something to defend their bigotry other than the fact that bigots outnumber their victims.

All of this talk of freedom of speech on both sides of the debate, other than to recognize that "no threat of violence has been made to no right to freedom of speech has been violated," was a distraction.

When the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals renders its decision, there will be a lot of talk about "freedom of speech" and "freedom of religion" then as well. It would be useful to point out that unless and until somebody starts advocating violence, nobody’s rights are being violated.

"Your right to freedom of speech and your right to freedom of religion is not a right to immunity from criticism. So get over it. Here comes the criticism."

P.S. If any of you might have heard that Kieffe & Sons apologized for their ad, you might want to consider reading their comments to the local news.

Rick Kieffe, owner of Kieffe and Sons Ford, said he doesn't regret running the ad, which aired on radio stations in eastern Kern County and the Antelope Valley, but he does apologize for offending anyone.

Which is about the same as saying, "I apologize for your irrational overreaction to something you were entirely unjustified in being offended by."


CrypticLife said...

I'm not sure I follow your objections here.

When Kieffe says "It's freedom of speech", what he clearly means is, "You can't use the force of law to make me withdraw this statement".

He's right. He's free to make whatever statement he likes, for the most part. I don't think atheists have questioned this.

Force of law implies potential violence used to enforce it, though you should be careful making this assertion, as civil penalties may also be forbidden even though they are not "violent" per se. Kieffe cannot be fined for his statement, just as he cannot be jailed for it.

Likewise, I don't think Kieffe questions the right of others to criticize him, even though "Let's tell them to shut up" is slightly ambiguous. Especially when invoking the majority, it could be read as, "Let's pass law that will make them shut up." He's still free to say this, of course, but actually passing such law would be a violation of free speech.

"It is your freedom of speech, you're free to make whatever idiotic comment you like," backed up with an explanation of why the speech is wrong, is sufficient as a response, I think.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Cryptic Life

Actually, I disagree with you on what the phrase 'clearly' means.

It is a common statement used against 'political correctness' - the moral principle that one is prohibited from saying something that others find offensive, or that 'offense' (regardless of its merits or foundation) is a legitimate justification for condemnation.

The idea is that we need to respect all views (regardless how absurd they are), so that any and all offense (no matter how poorly founded) provides a good enough reason to condemn the person who made the offense.

The response to this is to say, "My right to freedom of speech outweighs your right not to be offended." Which is true.

However, it is sometimes used to say, "My right to freedom of speech means that your offense is unfounded and can be ignored." This goes too far.

The advertisement is using 'freedom of speech' as a defense - as a way of telling the listener to 'listen to me, not to my critics'. But, in that context, it fails for the reason that I mentioned. "The fact that you have a right to speak does not imply that what you are saying has any merit."

Anonymous said...

The whole argument about free speech is a mess. Speech has consequences and although we all have freedom of speech we have to face up to the consequences and accept the responsibilities.

We are free to shout "Fire!' in a crowded subway but if there isn't a fire (and we knew that) we should face the consequences and be liable for the injuries caused by the false panic.

We have rules about slander and libel - we have the freedom to say what we want but can be sued for false statements that damage people.

If we claim the right to free speech then we have to accept the responsibilities inherent in that freedom.

Seems plain to me.