Sunday, June 10, 2012

Free Speech Is Not Absolutely Free

The right to freedom of speech is one of the most fundamental of values in America, spreading across the world. But people commonly misinterpret what it means, suggesting it is limitless by the ad nauseum claim that “it’s a free country”; this is also applied to freedom of actions, which is more easily refuted on basic ethical grounds, let alone legal ones. Free speech has long been established to have limits based in obscenity, fighting words, defamation of character and incitement to crimes. The most used example of incitement is yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, while libel is misrepresenting someone’s actions in published works and claiming it is factual. Obscenity is more difficult to discern, but the limitation could be construed to restrict more public sale or broadcast of such things. That’s how pornography is protected in its existence, privatized in its funding. But there have been many instances where preachers, especially recently, that have used their status as a religious official to speak words against homosexuality that go beyond simply saying they’ll go to hell or even wishing they’d die of AIDS or the like. Those are within rights, even if they are repugnant statements. The fact that they speak about religious concepts and in generalities (not individual gays, but the gay community) respectively makes them not fall under defamation of character or the like. But when you say that the government should kill homosexuals or that we should isolate gay females and males on an island and separate them by sex with electrified fences until they die off, you’ve gone beyond what even your state as a person associated with a house of worship, free of taxation, permits you to. This is especially so if you start saying what you think the government should do or even what you know it won’t do, but ought to in your opinion. But even when you just say it as your personal opinion without regard to the government, it borders on incitement to illegal actions, on the level of Japanese internment camps from World War 2 in America, not to mention the obvious Holocaust in that same era. No one’s saying you have to hold positive opinions about homosexuals; you can hate them all you want. But there are limits to what we can say for the same reason there are limits on many other freedoms, which I spoke about briefly in other articles, such as “Pro Choice Or Pro Liberty”. One shouldn’t try to legally protect otherwise unlawful speech under the guise of religious freedom or unrealistic ideas of how free you think speech is or should be. Speech can motivate actions, so we shouldn’t let it be abused anymore than the value of religion, regardless of if one believes it to reflect truth or not.

Preachers have every right to express distaste and even moral condemnation against homosexuals, along with everything else, but just because it’s fashionable within the particular sub culture to bash gays on such a level that is explicitly genocidal, even if not so direct in the method, doesn’t mean it’s protected free speech. At the very least, it’s in poor taste even if it is protected by the basic limits of criminalizing hate speech by imminent threat instead of any threat, but when you advocate such a thing, it goes beyond speech that merely expresses hatred and goes to acting on that hatred in some way that is illegal, like putting gays in separate electrified fenced off areas until they die off. No one’s saying you can’t express even strong distaste or bigotry towards people, but when you use words to give an impression that you intend harm to someone, either in their reputation or their person, those expressions are not legally protected automatically, especially if you are taken seriously, or even if people laugh at it jeeringly, because that just means that if they had the opportunity, they may very well do it, but the present law thankfully prevents them from doing so.

Making such a controversy over what you think are overly strict legal prohibitions on particular types of speech misses the point of freedom in general. A simple way to explain why any freedom is not completely at ease to be performed in any way is the idea of balance. A taijitu, the symbol most often called a yin yang, is one way to see it. To paraphrase, there is good in evil and there is evil in good. Some things are not harmless in their existence, so forbidding them is actually protecting people, not unnecessary censorship. There are dangers to the positive liberties we enjoy in that they can be taken to excess. So benefits exist in the negation of very specific instances of speech that are nearly universally considered damaging to civil society in that they allow for more expansive borders to what is permissible. When we have basic guidelines in terms of such a widespread and diverse practice as speech in one form or another: spoken, printed, broadcast, etc, then the extent to which one can push those limits is fairly large, to the level where satire is protected on the grounds that it is not obscene for its own sake, but to make a point. The Westboro Baptist Church argued its own legal cases well in terms of their speech being protected and not strictly criminal hate speech or defamation in the immediate sense of the terms. What they do is motivated by religious beliefs first and foremost and protection of those, whether you agree with them or not, is as essential as protecting our right to expression. Since they are not doing their protests because of a primary hatred of homosexuals irrespective of religious considerations and they are not attacking the individual as they are still alive, there are basic loopholes that are in place to protect them. This is not to say that the spirit behind WBC’s slanderous remarks is a good thing, but legally they are protected on the grounds that the individual cannot sue if they are already dead and it becomes difficult to establish whether someone can sue on a person’s behalf. Does it really affect another person if their friend is insulted and already dead? Does it affect the person already dead at all? These sorts of questions muddy what are already clouded waters to begin with. But both freedom of speech and religion have their limits and even Westboro understands this. Not that they’d feel the need to actually inflict property damage or assault gay people or those that “enable” them; their God will do it for them according to their beliefs. That’s where hate crimes start, though in this case the argument would be that these are merely assaults and not hate crimes, just as their speech is not specifically derived from the homosexuality itself, but religious beliefs about homosexuality. What distinguishes hate speech from defamation of character in general is your basic motivation for why you speak the hateful and libelous words you do. If it is merely out of spite for the individual or group in general, it is defamation, but if it is because the individual or group in question possesses particular characteristics that you are biased against, then the hate speech denotation is justified. Further qualification specifies whether your threats or hateful words give a person a feeling of imminent danger. If this is the case, then the hate speech can be criminally prosecuted. I admit I’m not an expert on this sort of thing and there may be more nuances that I’m not aware of, but fundamentally the protection of any speech, including hateful forms, is limited by whether it infringes upon the fundamental rights we all share, which include a basic sense of security in our persons, freedom of speech and religion, amongst the other derivative rights thereof. As the saying goes, “Your right to punch me stops at my nose”

While speech is certainly a valuable part of our society, we shouldn’t take it for granted as something that has a catch all sentiment of being acceptable all the time in every way it can be taken. Words are not just empty of any meaning, even if the meanings we attach to them vary by time and place. They are the foundation of beliefs, which are the motivation to actions. To paraphrase Confucius, if we don’t take our words seriously and reflect that our saying something leads to how we regard ourselves and others, then we risk social disharmony. If we speak hatred of others, it suggests a sort of self loathing that is at the root of the problem. One hears the Christian notion of hating the sin and loving the sinner, but with such statements made in today’s culture regarding the supposed problem of gay people and alleged agendas, it seems like there really isn’t a fundamental solution except to go back to antiquated ideas. Looking towards the future does not mean we throw out the past entirely, but we certainly don’t bring in traditions that are repressive of those that pose no real threat to others. Gay people, among so many other minorities still mistreated today in speech and action, should not even be treated ill with words. There are legal protections to those reprehensible voices, but only to a point. You cannot say you want to kill someone without the potential threat of battery charges against you on the simple fear that you may follow through with that thought in actual form. To not take what you say seriously is to make your deeds worthless. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

1 comment:

  1. the government SHOULD kill all gays and sieze their assets tohelp pay off the national debt.