Thursday, March 17, 2016

Freedom of Speech and Interrupting a Presentation

It seems that a lot of people are unclear as to the requirements regarding the moral right of freedom of speech.

The right to freedom of speech is a moral right against violence or threats of violence as a response to words or communicative actions (e.g., sign language, pictures, or cartoons). The main reason for this moral right is that truth has value, and truth should be able to stand up to objections on its merits. It is primarily falsehood that needs to resort to violence in its defense.

This moral prohibition applies to everybody. Some people assert that it is a restriction only placed on government. However, nobody - no individual, no organization, no company - has a right to respond to mere words with violence or threats of violence.

A right to freedom of speech is not a right to enter somebody else's property or private space and start yelling. If there is a violent response to such an action (e.g., fine, imprisonment) it is not a violation of freedom of speech. It is a legitimate response to trespass or to disturbing the peace.

For example, going into a movie theater and shouting protests at the screen when others have come to watch the movie not protected by a right to freedom of speech. An individual has a right to write up a critical review and get it published, or even to shout their protests outside of the theater where it will not disturb those who came to watch the movie. These are legitimate. Entering the theater and disrupting the presentation is not.

The same principle applies to attending a public event for the purpose of shouting down the speaker.

Let us take, for example, an speaking event and a protestor who decides to interrupt and shout her protests for one minute.

There is a principle in morality that says that what it is permissible for one person to do, it is permissible for everybody to do. Almost every moral system has some version of the statement, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It is found in the expression, "How would you like it if everybody did what you did?" In Kantian terms, it can be expressed as, "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction."

So, the person who stands and shouts for a minute is saying that each and every person in the auditorium may stand and deliver a similar one-minute speech. If we assume that the audience has 1000 members, then that is going to be over 16 hours of shouting - assuming that the principle being used involves limiting each individual to 1 minute of uninterrupted shouting.

If one is not willing to wait patiently while every other person takes their minute to shout about something that concerns them, then one is not doing unto others what one would have others do to them. One is acting on maxims one cannot will to be a universal law.

Another way to express this objection is to note that such a person is claiming a special right for themselves that she denies to everybody else. She is saying, in effect, "I am morally superior to all of you; you are all beneath me. My superior moral status gives me rights that none of you have."" Such an act is a paradigm expression of arrogance and self-importance.

Again, there is no objection to writing up a protest, or to arrange one's own meeting where one can express one's own opinion (again, without individuals in the audience shouting their protests). There is no objection to protesting outside of where the speech is being given. The objection is to providing an interruption - the equivalent of standing up and shouting at the screen in the middle of a movie.

Now, I am not a Kantian, nor do I accept moral clich├ęs. However, desirism provides a very similar conclusion.

Instead of, "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction," desirism says, "Act as a person with good desires would act, where good desires are those desires people generally have many and strong reasons to promote as universal desires."

Respect for the speaker and for those who came to watch her speak counts as a desire that people generally have many and strong reason to promote as a universal desire. It is something even the person who would interrupt the speech has a reason to promote as a universal desire since, without it, such speeches would be impossible.

This means that a lack of respect for the speaker and the members of the audience who came to hear the speech is something that people generally have many and strong reasons to respond to with condemnation, and even punishment. It is something that gives people generally good reason to identify the speaker as a selfish and arrogant - as somebody who thinks of herself as being superior to and above others and, correspondingly, thinks of others (and is willing to treat them as) lesser beings.

Which, in fact, accurately describes such a person.


Laurie said...

I think your article should be required reading for this year's U.S. Presidential candidates and their supporters. You've encapsulated the concept of free speech very well. Too many people forget that the flip side to their free speech is that those who oppose them have the same right to speak.

Robert Karma said...

I find Donald Trump to be an odious person promoting a toxic culture of hate in his pursuit of the White House. I will work for the Democratic nominee to get out the vote against Trump. Yet I find it disturbing to see anti-Trump protesters actively working to prevent Trump from speaking at his campaign events. This goes against the Freedom of Speech/Expression that we should all hold dear in our secular Constitutional Republic. Holding a protest outside of his event is fine as long as no one tries to keep Trump from speaking. I fear that some on the Left are acting in an authoritarian manner. We've already seen this on our college campuses with the SJW crowd. This behavior should be just as distasteful to us coming from the Left as it is the Right.