Freedom of speech

There’s a great article in the New York Times today about the difference between US and other nations in respect to the laws on freedom of speech. (You might have to log in to read it, but it’s free and quick to do.) In particular I liked the quote from Jeremy Waldron, who is rather interestingly described as a ‘legal philosopher’:

It is not clear to me that the Europeans are mistaken when they say that a liberal democracy must take affirmative responsibility for protecting the atmosphere of mutual respect against certain forms of vicious attack.

Many people argue that any infringement on freedom of speech is, by its nature, wrong, but I strongly believe that the leaders of a society have the duty to ensure that an ‘atmosphere of mutual respect’ is maintained and defended.

Harvey A. Silverglate, a civil liberties lawyer, defends the American system (where you are allowed to be as offensive and lie as much as you want) by evoking the old chestnut of Hitler:

The world didn’t suffer because too many people read Mein Kampf.Sending Hitler on a speaking tour of the United States would have been quite a good idea.

Given that there was some support for the doctrines of Hitler around the world, I think the idea of giving him the opportunity to gain a greater following in the US could have been a very bad idea indeed… Which just goes to show once again that lawyers don’t always think through what they’re saying, and that hyperbole can land you in a lot of trouble.

Back in 1919, Justice Holmes adjudicated on a case that set much of modern law’s attitude towards freedom of speech, and hate speech in particular:

The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.

… Which is cobblers. That’s like saying that watching adverts allows you to make an informed decision about which products you need to buy. There are always people who will be swayed, or who will find encouragement for existing predjudices, by the dissemination of decietful or biased material. Even a racist can sound charming if they want to: learning to be persuasive is easy, and there are always people who are happy to follow anyone who sounds like they know where they are going, which is why I think that the UK’s and other countries legal approaches to hate speech are an improvement on the US system (albeit sometimes with flaws, but they are a step up).

2 thoughts on “Freedom of speech”

  1. It’s pretty simple really, the US is too big a country for anyone to tell us what we can’t hear. We have a incredibly wide variety of opinions and cultures, while the UK has a much more unified culture. If it works for the UK, that’s fine, but it will never work here.

    There’s also the fact that Americans really like their free speech and find any attempt to control it incredibly threatening. Besides, you’d be hard pressed to find an American who thinks their government handles things competently (especially in the last 8 years). I’d rather keep them away from my opinions entirely. That said, free speech doesn’t mean you can shout “fire” in a crowded room, we do have limits. There’s still plenty of arguments over what constitutes free speech.

  2. I can’t agree with you there. The UK supports as equally a diverse range of people as America, with a wide range of opinions, we are just legally bound to not publically lie and defame other groups of people when we express those opinions. It’s rather patronising to suggest that the UK has a more narrow cultural spectrum than the US.

    If the American interpretation of free speech is the right to offend and misrepresant anyone without expecting recrimination then I definitely prefer the UK system.

    Would you really object to the restriction of people distributing racist literature? Or saying that all gay people are paedophiles? Those are the kind of thing – demonstrably false accusations or representations – that are restricted by UK law, especially when they are likely to result in harm to the groups involved. I’m not sure why anyone would object to that.

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