Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The freedom of speech conundrum


Freedom of speech is an idea that is bred in my bones. It is one of my most, if not my most, firmly held beliefs.

I even believe in the right of idiots like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Dinesh D'Souza, Bill Maher, and Sean Hannity, to name just five, to spew their uninformed, bigoted hate speech into the world - and, most importantly, I believe in my right to call them idiots and to describe their discourse as uninformed and bigoted.

But are there limits to the right to free speech? It's something that thoughtful people struggle with. Even the pope has weighed in on it following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris.

What if your "free speech" is such that it incites others to violence or is an affront to public safety like yelling "fire" in a crowded theater? And what about free speech that is deliberately intended to insult and provoke others? When people are hurt or killed by those who have been provoked by the free speech, what is the responsibility of the "free speaker"?

These are not easy questions. Governments and individuals must answer them in their own way, of course, but I was especially struck by the irony of the protest march in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo killings - you know, the one that was "led" by politicians from around the world.

So, we have the representative from Saudi Arabia marching arm in arm with other leaders - Saudi Arabia, where in that same week, they were publicly flogging a blogger because of what he had written and they will continue to flog him weekly until he has received 1000 lashes.

And, of course, there was Egypt which continues to hold journalists in prison because they have dared to report the truth from that country.

And in France itself, in the week after the terrorism incident, fifty-four people were arrested for exercising their right to free speech by defending the terrorists or practicing what France describes as "hate speech." And yet, what Charlie Hebdo practices is not considered "hate speech"? Is is perhaps the case that it is only "hate speech" if you disagree with it?

All of this just makes my head hurt to think of it. I don't have a quick and easy answer for it. I know my standards and the limits that I put on myself, and I have opinions as to when others cross the line, and I really wish they wouldn't. Still, I would not wish to restrain them.

In this, as in so many things, I find myself "in the minority" and I appreciate Jen Sorensen's wonderful cartoon that sums up my sentiments quite nicely. (Hat tip to Daily Kos.)



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