On Free speech

This post is dedicated to the memory of Dan Uzan, the volunteer security guard who was shot and killed by a terrorist in Copenhagen on February 15th, 2015.

Discussions about free speech have been making the rounds again this past six months. Most might attribute the discussion to the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices on January 7th. In my opinion, that is nowhere near a broad enough view. While those attacks certainly pushed the debate right front and center, the debate in and of itself has been ongoing. Another important cause for the debate bubbling back up are the PEGIDA marches around Europe, and I am sure there are more. A third cause is the attacks on the debate about freedom of speech and subsequent attack on the jewish community of Copenhagen. I am sure there are more.

In Norway, PEGIDA leaders and supporters are claiming free speech is non-existent, on the basis that they are being protected by the Police from counter-protestors. They are also claiming that criticism of PEGIDA, its supporters and its message are hindering their right to free speech. This is obviously bullshit. The right to free speech has been eminently defined by XKCD:

Cueball: Public Service Announcement: The Right to Free Speech means the government can't arrest you for what you say. Cueball: It doesn't mean that anyone else has to listen to your bullshit, or host you while you share it. Cueball: The 1st amendment doesn't shield you from criticism or consequences. Cueball: If you're yelled at, boycotted, have your show canceled, or get banned from an Internet community, your free speech rights aren't being violated. Cueball: It's just that the people listening think you're an asshole, [A picture of an partially open door is displayed.] Cueball: And they're showing you the door.

Now, I agree with Max Fisher when he says that “Charlie Hebdo’s satire makes high-minded points, but indulges racism along the way”. Still, their satire is protected by the right to free speech. The same is true of the message of PEGIDA. In both cases, I say, as Evelyn B. Hall did, in illustrating Voltaire’s beliefs “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. While PEGIDAs message sickens and frightens me, I take solace in the fact that they are meeting massive, peaceful, and reasoned resistance; arguing the points rather than physically fighting them.

The right to free speech is a right, not a duty, and it is also a right not to speak. Sometimes the right, honorable, and responsible thing to do is not to say what we want. One might think a politician, colleague, or friend is a despicable human being, who shouldn’t be allowed to utter a single word in public. That is a perfectly valid point of view. Stating it might not be the smartest thing. The right to free speech is not, as some seem to think, absolute. Inciting people to violence and terror is an example of statements which are not protected by the right to free speech, but are instead criminalized.

I am not Charlie; I simply don’t agree with how they deliver their content. I do, however, support their right to make that delivery, and I abhor those who would use violence to silence them. Likewise, I am certainly not PEGIDA; I think their message is reprehensible. Yet, I still support their right to make their message known. Extremism – in all its forms – is something against which we must guard. In ceremonies around the world, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was observed back in January. We remember those murdered, and we talk of what happened, not only to remember, but to remind ourselves, and the world at large, what can happen when extremists are allowed to reign supreme.

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