The Right to Free Speech
It is a cliché to declare that Americans, and Westerners in general, take our civil liberties and our democratic system of government for granted—but it is true. We know that there are places around the world where the rule of law is not respected, where a single brutal dictator rules, where freedom of speech and religion is not respected. But we do not think that such a thing could ever happen here (or in any Western country), or if it did, that it could only happen if a Hitler-like dictator seized power.
Sadly, though, it can happen here. In many Western countries, our basic liberties are slowly eroding away. Most blogosphere members have heard of the Mark Steyn-Ezra Levant case. Both of these writers have been investigated by the Canadian Human Rights commission for “flagrant Islamophobia”. “Islamophobia”, which is apparently illegal in Canada, can be defined as writings too critical of Muslims. While neither Steyn nor Levant will be charged, it is a chilling fact that simply criticizing Muslims can be a criminal offense in Canada.
In France, former film star Brigitte Bardot faces jail time for “inciting racial hatred”. Her “hate” speech? “I am fed up with being under the thumb of this population [France’s Muslim population] which is destroying us, destroying our country and imposing its acts”.
That sounds sort of tame by American standards—I’m pretty sure that Michael Savage or Ann Coulter have said far tougher things than that. And it’s also hard not to notice that Muslims aren’t a race, and it’s difficult to “incite race hatred” against a religion. Bardot’s comments may be inaccurate, and they are certainly critical of Muslims, but they definitely aren’t hateful.
But even if they were hateful, it is frightening to realize that in France—a modern country with protections for civil liberties—one can be jailed for saying things that do not conform to the official policy. The French philosopher Voltaire said “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. (Actually, that quote is probably apocryphal, but still). There is little evidence of that attitude in modern France.
Many see no problem with banning hateful sentiments—after all, is the world really a better place for the hateful rants of the people over at Stormfront.org? (For those fortunate enough to have never visited that particular site, it is a chat room run by David Duke that is known for both its hateful rants and the general stupidity of its members). Many people think that obviously hateful rhetoric should not be allowed.
Nobody likes hate speech, but it should be permitted. In fact, allowing such speech is essential for a functioning democracy. The first, and most obvious, reason is that if hate speech is not allowed, whoever controls the definition of “hate speech” controls political debate in the country. It is a good bet that Martin Luther King’s speeches would have been “hate speech”, and probably such works as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (which is pretty hard on slave owners—Stowe is at least as critical of them as Mark Steyn is of radical Muslims). Those who advocate controls on hateful comments should consider a world in which any dissenting point of view is banned.
There is also a more basic reason for opposing laws controlling speech. We have a constitutional, and, some would argue, God-given right to free speech. The essence of free speech is that the citizen can say whatever he wants to, without worrying about a government crackdown. People will not always exercise this right wisely—but that does not justify the withdrawal of this right.