Saturday, August 08, 2009

Bigotry and Free Speech in Des Moines

A lot of people seem to be making the mistake of classifying the moral offense that took place in Des Moines, Iowa, as a violation of freedom of speech.

They are wrong. This is not a free speech issue. It is a discrimination issue.

Free speech has to do with the use of violence or threats of violence against those who speak. Nobody . . . at least no public official (though possibly a few private citizens) is threatening violence against those who spoke or uttered a particular phrase. Instead, they are expressing their opinions through private actions.

Claiming that the decision to pull the signs is a violation of freedom of speech in fact goes so far as to use "freedom of speech" to destroy the very right it is holding up as having special value. It is an example of newspeak no less self-contradictory than the claim that war is peace, or slavery is freedom.

We can illustrate this by noting that the KKK also has a right to freedom of speech. If the incident is a free speech issue, then DART is just as obligated to put an advertisement from the KKK on the side of a bus as they are an advertisement from Atheists and Free Thinkers of Iowa. If, on the other hand, we hold that DART has the legal authority to refuse an advertisement from the KKK, then the decision not to run an advertisement is not a violation of free speech. It is, instead, some type of violation.

The actual moral crime in this case is not that of violating free speech, but religious discrimination and, behind that, the moral crime of religious bigotry. It is the unfounded hostility towards members of a group based on religious beliefs of the members of that group.

This position explains and predicts the types of evidence one looks for in determining if the accused are guilty of the moral crime with which they are being charged. One of the main questions asked was whether DART had run equivalent advertisements from religious organizations in the past. If they had refused similar types of advertisements from churches and other religious organizations, this would have counted in their favor.

However, you cannot defend yourself from a charge of freedom of speech by showing that you have impinged on everybody's freedom equally. You cannot defend a violation of freedom of speech by saying that it applies to everybody. A government that prohibits any and all discussion on, for example, would be a government that is hostile to free speech, not a government that protects free speech.

The act of looking for signs of whether an organization treated different groups equally is precisely the type of evidence relevant to the charges of discrimination and bigotry. If people having quality Q are permitted to do X, and people who lack quality Q are prohibited from doing X, then this counts as evidence that the people in question are discriminating depending on the presence or absence of quality Q. At which time, we can then ask whether those grounds of discrimination are legitimate or illegitimate.

In addition to the issue of simply getting the moral facts right, there is another reason to be clear on whether we clearly distinguish between moral wrongs and charge people with the correct moral crimes. If we confuse the issue, we make it easier for those who are guilty to get away with the wrongs that they commit.

For example, let us take a person who is guilty of embezzlement and charge her, instead, with the crime of assault when, as it turns out, she is not guilty of assault.

The embezzler accused of assault needs to only answer the charge that she committed assault. Since she did not commit assault (we are assuming), it would be difficult to make the accusation stick.

However, if the embezzler is accused of embezzling, the crime for which she is actually guilty, the case against her can be much stronger.

The accusation of violating a right to freedom of speech faces the same hurdle. It is an accusation that is easy to answer because the accused are not, in fact, guilty of that crime. They have not responded to speech with violence or threats of violence. They are exercising the same rights that, for example, a public school newspaper has in refusing an advertisement from the local KKK or the owner of a Jewish Deli has to refuse an advertisement from the American NAZI Party.

Whereas the accusation of religious bigotry does not face this hurdle. The people who complained to DART exhibited a clear instance of discrimination based on religious belief – an area where the Constitution prohibits the government from practicing discrimination. They have expressed an unfounded hostility towards members of a group based on religious belief, and for that they are guilty of religious bigotry. For its part, DART originally decided to side with religious bigots and turn bigoted attitudes into an actual act of discrimination on the basis of religion by a government entity.

Against those accusations, it is quite easy to demonstrate DART's guilt.


Brian Westley said...

Free speech has to do with the use of violence or threats of violence against those who speak.

Free speech also has to do with laws & government officials attempting to restrict speech.

Note that if DART hadn't agreed to run the ads, the ACLU would have sued on 1st amendment free speech grounds, and almost certainly would have won on those grounds.

It clearly IS a free speech issue.

Emu Sam said...

Laws and the enforcement of those laws lead to violence in the extreme ends of enforcement. A person who continually refuses to go to court can be physically restrained and threatened with guns if they resist.