The Jackboot Stomping on the Throat of Free Speech

jackboot The Jackboot Stomping on the Throat of Free Speech

There are an increasing number of people in the United Kingdom being prosecuted for expressing opinions that other people consider offensive or insulting, or  that “incite” crime.

They fall into several broad categories:

Comments that are “offensive” to a particular racial group:

Comments that are “offensive” to a particular religious group:

Comments that are “offensive” to a particular sexual orientation:

Comments that are just generally “offensive”:

Comments that “incite” others to commit a crime:

Now, don’t misunderstand me, I do not agree with, or support in any way, any of the comments above. In every case the opinion expressed is either stupid, offensive, ignorant, hurtful, or all all of the above. They are certainly not the  sorts of thing that nice people like you and me would say to anyone. But, that’s really the whole point of freedom of speech:

“Free speech is meant to protect unpopular speech. Popular speech, by definition, needs no protection.”
Neal Boortz 

“If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”
Noam Chomsky

But why is freedom of speech such an important thing?

Why would anybody want to protect the freedom of people to say things that “incite” criminal activity or are “offensive” to others ?

John Stuart Mill in his classic book “On Liberty” put one case for freedom of speech on the grounds that we risk suppressing the truth:

Today we consider slavery to be abhorrent, freedom of religious views and freedom of sexual orientation to be important, but this was not always the case:

Those who wish to suppress freedom of speech on race grounds should consider:

In the American South for many years, slavery was widely accepted. To speak out against it would have been “offensive” to the majority of  slave owners. It would also be the crime of “incitement”, as this extract from an 1855 Kansas Slave Property Law shows:

If any free person shall by speaking, writing or printing advise, persuade or induce any slaves to rebel, conspire against or murder any citizens of this Territory, or shall bring into printed, written, published or circulated, or shall knowingly aid or assist in the bringing into printing, publishing, writing or circulating in this Territory any book, paper, magazine, pamphlet or circulation for the purpose of exciting insurrection, rebellion, revolt, or conspiracy on the part of slaves, free Negroes or mulattoes against the citizens of the Territory or any part of them, such person shall be guilty of felony and suffer death.

Those who wish to suppress freedom of speech on religious grounds should consider:

In Roman times the ideas of Christianity were considered “offensive”, particularly the refusal to make sacrifices to the Roman Gods. Denial of the Roman Gods was a crime and the whole religion of Christianity was therefore an “incitement” to break the law. (In the Biblical account, Jesus was  also sentenced to death for blasphemy, for the “offensive”, and to them clearly untrue, claim that he was  the son of God)

Those who wish to suppress freedom of speech on sexual orientation grounds should consider:

In 19th and 18th century England homosexuality was a criminal offence and the general population would have considered any comments promoting it to be “offensive” to public morals and perhaps an “incitement” to commit the criminal act. A view of trials and negative social commentary from the time can be found here .The last recorded use of the death penalty for the crime of committing a homosexual act was as recent as 1836

The point being, that views about what is offensive, and what is a crime to incite, change over time. The people of the past were sure they were right, we now disagree.

The change of opinion could not have been made if the offensive free speech of the time had been suppressed.

I can put it no better than John Stuart Mill:

“The opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.”

It is not just correct views that benefit from freedom of speech. Mill also argued that the only way to fully discredit wrong views is hold them up to the light and expose their stupidity for all to see.

“Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it. Very few facts are able to tell their own story, without comments to bring out their meaning.”

Isn’t it less likely that people will be drawn to racist or homophobic views if these views are expressed by their advocates and then roundly demolished, publicly by their opponents?

Aren’t these repulsive views more likely to attract the gullible, shallow thinkers, if they hear  racist, or homophobic views in private and never hear the arguments that show the views to be false?

Historically, this has widely been recognised as the truth:

“A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”
John F. Kennedy

“Men are apt to mistake the strength of their feeling for the strength of their argument. The heated mind resents the chill touch and relentless scrutiny of logic.”
William E. Gladstone

However,  the public now seem to have been guided by the media to the opposite view where everything from potentially offensive jokes to  descriptions of groups with negative connotations must not be heard. Political correctness has become yet another Jackboot stomping on the throat of free speech.

Making it a crime to use offensive comments about someone’s beliefs, may start with religion, but once that has been widely accepted it is a small step to encompass political beliefs and provide an open door for state force to silence its critics:

If you think that this sort of thing only happens in other countries, you need to shake yourself out of your complacency. We already have a draconian law on the statute book that could have been used to imprison all the people above, here in the United Kingdom:

Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, which states:

(1)A person is guilty of an offence if he

(a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or

(b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,

within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.

So, what can be done to protect what’s left of our right to free speech and perhaps even reclaim what has already been lost ?

We must put the case for free speech as forcefully as we can at every opportunity, we must take to task those who propose criminal sanctions for making comments and we must try to turn back the tide of public opinion to favour freedom over political correctness.

However, we must now do so with one hand tied behind our back, ensuring that our passion never crosses the line and becomes “insulting”, that our arguments can never be thought “offensive” and that we do not inadvertently give the impression we are “inciting” anyone to take any actions.

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  • Kerry Almhurst

    “We must put the case for free speech as forcefully as we can at every opportunity”

    Thank you for writing this blog, and introducing so many people to the ideas of Liberty!

    I agree with your call for putting the case for free speech. What is missing from this post, and many of the other posts on this fine blog, are the basic facts of the principles you are discussing.

    For example, free speech is not only a good idea, and a sound way of refuting bad ideas; free speech is your absolute right, which stems from the property right you have in yourself.

    It is by this property right that you have in yourself that you can assert that no one has the right to shut you up, and stop you from speaking. It is by your property rights that you can own paper, ink and a printing press to manufacture pieces of paper with words on them. Those pieces of paper, being your property, can be sold to others in a private exchange for money. The same goes for all means of communication; the freedom to say what you want comes from property rights.

    These are the fundamental principles behind ‘freedom of speech’. They have nothing to do with the soundness of arguments, their benefit to ‘society’, whether or not they are demonstrably true or false, or their efficacy in routing out philosophical error. This is how you make an argument from first principles to assert a right. Quoting Noam Chomsky simply is not good enough.

    I suggest that you cite relevant Libertarian literature at the end of every one of your posts, so that readers can investigate for themselves, the principals you are sketching out in each post you make. I suggest that reading lists are crucial to help spread Libertarianism.

    Finally let me be clear; I understand that having read Rothbard’s works yourself, you understand everything that I have written here. I am simply suggesting that pointing others to his works consistently, and referring to principle habitually is a good way to spread these ideas.

    • http://www.libertarianview.co.uk Murray Rothbard

      You are quite right in what you say and the reading list is good idea, which I will start to add. 

      Sometimes it is easier to convert people to a point of view, by showing consequences, rather than justifying principles. 

      The argument from first principles needs to address many objections, such as the Shouting fire in the crowded cinema example. Whilst these can, of course,  be dealt with:

      Walter Block: http://mises.org/media/3516/10-The-Person-Who-Yells-Fire-in-a-Crowded-Theatre 

      Murray Rothbard: http://mises.org/rothbard/ethics/fifteen.asp

      You  are faced with the choice of either ignoring objections and losing those who think of them, or dealing with them all and losing people with limited attention spans!

  • James Pelham

    A good question would be, who decided what’s insulting? I would imagine that every view could potentially offend someone – does this law mean that no one is allowed to express a personal opinion on anything? 

  • Pingback: Closed thread! Freedom of speech?!

  • http://twitter.com/JSinghF Joginder Singh Foley

    The Chilling part that scares me is the that that they now want the right to trawl through all your e-mails, mobile and landline phone calls, social networking sites and internet and record and retain where and when you have been online and your phone calls….Freedoms our freedoms seem to be disappearing 

  • korikisulda(コリキ)

    And of course, on top of this, now we have invariably overreaching and hypocritically applied government approved filtering to ‘protect children’.

  • Foley free

    Free speech is fine, You would still need a guard for someone’s life, liberty, & property. The balance is between these two factors.