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Free speech

Recently I have read of the horrible shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in the USA. This event and the discussion associated with it has made me think again about free speech.

The problem is that some people have been making some very inflammatory comments which could influence some people to commit acts of violence. I hold a view that Mr Average* might be able to read a newspaper, watch TV or listen to the radio spouting some extreme incitement to violence and stay “normal”. But a sizeable minority may after hearing such matter go and commit acts of violence.

So to protect society we do need some limits on free speech. Here are some of the limts which I can think of off the top of my head.

1. You are not free to incite violence or hatred, hate speech is scheduled by law in every country I have ever lived in. We need to balance freedom of speech with the need to protect society from the incitement of violence.

2. You are not free to slander or libel others. These torts of deformation are the making of untrue statements which are harmful to the good name of another person. English law requires that the statement be about a living person (or organisation), be untrue and harmful to that body for it to be libel.

3. You are not free to release confidential matter into the public domain. So things which are national security issues, affect the welfare of people or are commercially sensitive need protection. For example I am sure that you would not be happy if your bank manager was to yell in the street about your overdraft, or for the local priest to tell passers by about Mrs X’s affair with the milkman.

4. You are not free to publish obscene matter. It is an abuse of freedom of speech to claim that it protects smut.

There are some other limits which are needed on free speech to protect both other people and society. Some time ago P.J. O’Rourke discussed freedom saying that liberals want the freedom to “say bad words and to expose their private parts in art museums“. I understand ‘saying bad words’ as uttering the most disgusting filth just for the sake of uttering filth and I understand ‘exposing their private parts in art museums’ as creating the most deplorable porn and then calling it art. I would say neither the foul mouthed person or the “artist” showing porn are using freedom of speech in the correct way, they are both abusing freedom of speech.

True freedom of speech is the freedom to think differently to the rest of the population, to be able to express opinions which differ from your neighbour’s opinions (without fear of being attacked for thinking differently) and to be able to criticise public figures such as members of the government without fear of arrest/torture/death. My advice is use your freedom of speech with care, do not abuse it as you might set in motion events which might curtail or end freedom of expression or freedom of thought.

PS. I am a liberal with a small l, but I still find P.J. O’Rourke funny.

* I might be thought of as sexist, but the majority of violence in the UK is done by men between about 15 and 25 to other men of the same age range. So at least for the UK violence tends to me a male activity. However in this equal opportunities world some women do feel the urge to indulge in violence, for example as a young postdoc I once saw a pair of teenaged girls fighting in the street. With some luck they have reformed by now and become productive law abiding members of society.


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