The Limits of Free Speech?

The Limits of Free Speech? May 6, 2015
Salman Rushdie (By Kyle Cassidy via Wikimedia Commons)
Salman Rushdie (Kyle Cassidy via Wikimedia Commons)

The moment you limit free speech it’s not free speech. ~Salman Rushdie

In the wake of the recent near attacks on the satirical cartoon contest sponsored by the American Defense Freedom Initiative self-appointed pundits have begun to talk about the “limits of free speech,” asking questions such as: is some speech so provocative that it should be limited?  So have respectable news outlets.  McClatchy, a news source whose reporting I appreciate, recently posed the question this way: “If free speech is provocative, should there be limits?”  Today, Diane Rehm–one of the best interviewers in radio–will broadcast a show entitled, “An Attack Thwarted in Texas, Claims of Responsibility by ISIS, and The Limits of Free Speech.”

Although we all understand that even in free society there are limits on speech, in America, those limitations have generally been applied to specific public situations, e.g. “shouting fire in a crowded theater,” and not specific sorts of speech, e.g. anti-religious rhetoric.  Anti-religious rhetoric–be it in the form of Sam Harris‘ caustic New Atheism, Jack Chick’s anti-Catholic Tracts, or provocative cartoons of Muhammad–is the sort of annoying, insulting, and yes, even blasphemous speech that religious groups in American have come to accept as the price of living in a society that affords them free exercise.

After the ratification of The Bill of Rights, the legal protections enshrined in First Amendment shaped the development of religion (and religions) in the United States of America.  Unlike in the state-church societies of eighteenth-century Europe, in the newly formed republic religious groups had to compete for adherents in an emerging religious marketplace.  In this religious marketplace, which grew as the nation expanded westward and the New England states disestablished their state churches, groups used rhetoric and suasion to bolster their numbers.  At times, this rhetoric included virulent bombast and slanderous claims about other religious groups.  Although frustrating to those groups at whom it was directed, in principle (if not always in practice) the legal protection afforded such speech meant that the disparaged groups had a right to retaliate.  In short, I tolerated your bombastic blasphemy because you were compelled to tolerate mine.

President Johnson Signs the 1965 Immigration Act (By Yoichi R. Okamoto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
President Johnson Signs the 1965 Immigration Act (By Yoichi R. Okamoto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
In the nineteenth century, denominationalism became the shape of religion in America as the various groups learned to work together for specific causes while maintaining their distinctive beliefs.  Baptists and Methodist cooperated to publish gospel tracts even as they harangued each other over baptism.  In the frontier states, the denominations engaged in a war of words through sermons, speeches, and denominational papers.  Occasionally fistfights would break out, but rarely were one’s religious opponents killed.  By the late twentieth century, that model of mutual toleration, and at times, respect, expanded to included non-Christian groups as Asian immigration opened after 1965.  It remains to be seen whether or not such an arrangement can survive globalization and an America where security is beginning to trump freedom.  The near attack in Garland, and perhaps more importantly, the reactions of Americans to it, tests the limits of that arrangement of mutual toleration-mutual free speech.

Without a doubt, it is easy to defend the free speech of groups one finds tolerable. It is much more difficult–but also much more necessary–to defend the free speech of groups that one finds despicable.  And yet liberty depends on just that, for freedom erodes from the margins towards the center.  Thus, we must defend anti-religious rhetoric as free speech, even when it is provocative because our freedoms depend upon it.  The oft-cited quote mistakenly credited to Voltaire applies: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  Without a doubt, evangelicals ought to denounce the ADFI and its provocative tactics as unworthy of the name of Christ, even as we defend the American principle of free speech.  Once one form of speech is labelled as “too provocative,” any form can become a target for that label, a situation that bodes well for no one, whether Muslim, Christian, or anti-religious rhetorician.  On this, it seems, a whole host of Americans ought to agree.



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  • How does “free speech” relate to “false speech”? Divine law states “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” The Lord backed up proven false testimony with commensurate penalties, even death. Should not we do likewise?

  • stefanstackhouse

    “Free speech” as defined in the US, and in particular in the Constitution, only means that the government can’t go after you or shut you up because of what you say. There is also this little matter of our living in a country where firearms are easy to obtain and widely held; actually, our citizenry are armed to the teeth – and more than just a few of them are not quite in their right minds and in full control of themselves. No government can provide and deliver upon a absolute 100% guarantee of security to all of its citizens under such circumstances; it simply can’t be done. What one has a legal right to do and what is practically prudent thing to do are actually two different things, whether one likes it or not.

  • Miles Mullin

    When we start using the language of “prudence” like this, what we are really talking about is self-censorship, which is the beginning of one path towards several different tyrannies. Further, one might argue that the protection of such inalienable rights endowed by the Creator is one of the constitutionally delineated mandates of the government–even when deplorable content is involved.

  • Miles Mullin

    Sorry, William. I am not a fan of Dominion Theology. Based on the New Testament witness, I’m certain I stand with Jesus and the apostles on that.

  • stefanstackhouse

    Of course it is self-censorship. When someone you know who has done something foolish and self-destructive comes to you asking for prayer, do you say “You fool, look what you brought on yourself!”, or do you bite your tongue and say something more diplomatic and compassionate? We self-censor ourselves all the time; another name for it is “civility”. If all of us blurted out everything we ever thought immediately and without inhibition, I can guarantee you that it would not be a place in which you would want to live.

    Please re-read the 1st amendment to the US Constitution. It does not actually grant the sweeping and absolute right to free speech that you are claiming. It only restrains the government from abridging your right to free speech, which is a much more limited thing. You may have such an absolute right, but it is not one that is or can actually be guaranteed by the Constitution or the government it established.

  • Not sure I understand what you mean by “Dominion Theology”, just questioning what legitimate restraints the government may have in the area of speech.

  • Miles Mullin

    When “civility” means don’t say anything about X because that will offend Y group who might retaliate with violence, then those groups willing to employ violence over their offence end up with all the power. Matters not if they are religious, anti-religious, or even the government itself. I would suggest that civility, American-style, means that we put up with stupid and even incendiary speech without resorting to violence and that we refuse to countenance those who do, even while we may choose to denounce the stupid and incendiary speech.

    You are correct that the First Amendment on its own has to do with restraining the federal government form infringing upon the rights of its citizens in specified areas. At the same time, historical precedent, and legal decisions have led the federal government to take on the role of guaranteeing that citizens can exercise those rights, especially groups in the minority.

    Thanks for reading.

  • Miles Mullin

    It appeared that you were suggesting that we ought to implement Old Testament law here in the USA, a position known as Theonomy or Dominion Theology. If you were not, I apologize for my comment.

    Thanks a lot for reading!

  • abb3w

    The Chaplinski v NH ruling outlines several that are considered legitimately allowed as Constitutional law. Libel and slander are subject to civil suit for damages if complaint is brought by those harmed; speech soliciting for or advocating of criminal activity may itself be proscribed as a crime.

    The point central to the Charlie Hebdo issue and tricky both as political and legal question, seems to be at “tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace”. Should incite also properly encompass provoke? And can breach triggered by a printed publication ever really be considered “immediate”?

  • Maine_Skeptic

    “…No government can provide and deliver upon a absolute 100% guarantee of security to all of its citizens under such circumstances; it simply can’t be done…”

    I don’t think anyone expects absolute guarantees, but it isn’t enough for the government not to abridge free speech if the people say that certain kinds of speech make murder more acceptable.

  • Rob Smith

    In essence, the difference between protected speech and unprotected speech is whether or not someone is willing to use violence in response. That would seem to make the most violent and sociopathic the arbiters of free speech.

  • Trespassers W

    “Without a doubt, evangelicals ought to denounce the ADFI and its provocative tactics as unworthy of the name of Christ,…”

    I’m not sure why we “ought to” do this. First off, it’s not clear whether ADFI is a Christian organization. (I didn’t find any indication of that on their website.)

    Second, did Christ not use provocative tactics?

  • abb3w

    As I alluded, it would seem not if “provoke” (that is, due to irritation rather than advocacy) is excluded from “incite”. It might (in a broader political sense) also be possible to limit the “arbitration” capability with (for example) a statute that allows prosecution for provocation, but limiting the punishment to some small fraction of the punishment actually given to those who acted unlawfully.

    That said, the inclinations of the violent and sociopathic always give the demarcation line for rights in politics, through determination to continue on to other means — constrained by the ability of the non-sociopathically violent to remove from society those who are.

  • Danny

    Can you please give an example of speech that makes murder more acceptable? I can’t think of anything someone could say that would ever make murder more acceptable. Murder is never acceptable regardless of what is or is not said.

  • Danny

    Divine law is irrelevant. There is no concept of false speech in our laws. The closest thing would be slander or public fraud, both punishable by law. Not divine law because luckily we are not a theocracy, like ISIS!

  • Every government’s a theocracy.

  • Donalbain

    The “divine law” states “You shall have no gods before me”. Does that mean that Hinduism should be illegal?

  • Maine_Skeptic

    I have as big a problem with that as you do, Danny. My point may have been lost in the threads, but when people say things like “the Texas attacks by Muslims were wrong, but…” the “but” is saying (IMO) that the perceived anti-Muslim speech lessened the offense.

    Sometimes people say that we have “free speech, but free speech doesn’t free you from the consequences of what you say.” Actually, yes, it should free you from some consequences. Words matter, but they shouldn’t get you harassed, threatened, attacked, or killed. If we as a society can’t protect people from that, then we’re failing to defend our own rights, and we’ll pay for it in the long run.

  • Are you referring to some specific act?

  • Donalbain

    The act of worshipping gods other than the tribal deity of Israel. Should that be illegal?

  • Absolutely!

  • Danny

    I agree with. I think it is actually religions interpreted unreasonably that tend to make murder more acceptable. And, no religion is immune from this possibility.

  • Donalbain

    Wow. Simply wow.