Reason as the Leading Motive

Who Knows What’s Free Speech

Posted by Jerry on August 21, 2007

In the latest issue of The Philosopher’s Magazine, two academians are involved in a disagreement over permitting free speech in academia. One, Steve Fuller, is trying to defend the academic freedom of speech, and the other, Alan Haworth, is adopting a cautious approach to how much liberty can be permitted (or is even necessary) in academic speech.

Leaving aside the incredulous fact that an academian is arguing against unrestrained free speech, examine the appallingly poor quality of the arguments exchanged by these two. I couldn’t believe that the intellectual stature of academians could be this mediocre, assuming that they reflect the predominant intellectual culture in philosophy departments. Check out these excerpts:

Alan Haworth states:

“…take that piece of nonsense about “offensiveness”. One frequently hears it reiterated these days that “there is no such thing as a right not to be offended,” but the claim is clearly false. It is obvious that I would be doing something highly offensive if I were to approach some person in the street and say, for example, “It is my opinion that you and people like you are imbeciles with low standards of personal hygiene,” and it is equally obvious that, in ordinary morality, there is a strong presupposition against such behaviour. Moreover, it would make no difference if the offensive remark were made by an academic; if I had said, for example, “I am a professor, and it is my opinion that you and people like you… etcetera.” Neither would it matter whether I was inside or outside a classroom. Therefore, your first principle, according to which academics should have unrestricted liberty to express unpopular opinions “whether or not these are deemed offensive” is, to say the least, questionable…”

Haworth seems to confuse the difference between a moral and a legal action. The argument that one has no right to not be offended is an argument on the legal character of the right to free speech. It is immoral to wantonly denigrate or offend another person without rational reasons. But the offensive speech should be legally protected under free speech laws–which is indeed the whole raison d’etre of such laws. This distinction between the moral and the legal aspects of a case is lost to Haworth.

Haworth then goes on to make the case that Holocaust deniers are nothing more than “bullying” anti-Semitists; and as such, they should not be granted the freedom of speech. Here, the point Haworth is missing is that it is only in an open and public battlefield of ideas that lies, deception, inaccuracies, and fallacies can be exposed and swiftly done away with. The best way to decimate a fallacious argument is to have its best proponent have the freedom to present his argument publicly with the greatest rigor, and then systematically unhinge its crucial premises for all to see. It is worse to actively suppress false ideas by denying them expression than it is to ignore their free expression.

Then, here comes a truly shocking display of intellectual mediocrity; Haworth contends:

“What justifies the restriction of that liberty? Its perfectly obvious that something must. Otherwise, I would be entitled to stand outside your house with a megaphone at three o’clock in the morning, keeping you awake with readings from my favourite political manifesto. Or, to borrow a frequently cited example, I would be entitled to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, simply for the sake of causing mayhem.”

To which, Steve Fuller, in an apparent attempt to offer a defense of free speech, states the following:

“The main problem with your example of arbitrarily shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre is that while it involves speech there is nothing especially intellectual about it: The problem it raises is simply that of licence in liberal societies, solutions to which depend on how much a society can tolerate and who is authorised to judge.”

Huh?? Can there be a more arbitrary standard for defending and defining free speech, public license, and social permissions!?

Steve Fuller and Alan Howarth are apparently clueless about all the conceptual connections involved in the matter of free speech–such as how the right to free speech is connected with the right to life and which is in turn connected with the right to property, which is in turn connected with the right to pursue knowledge and happiness.

For a thorough and illuminating exposition of the right to free speech, read the interview of Dr. Onkar Ghate, who is an expert on Ayn Rand’s epistemology and her conception of the right to free speech.

Relevant to the above discussion, this is Dr. Ghate’s position on screaming “Fire!” in a crowded theater (or even an empty theater, for that matter):

Notice… that an individual uttering the most vicious falsehoods does not infringe on anyone’s rights. If someone declared that Asians are morally corrupt (I’m half Indian), he neither “picks my pocket nor breaks my leg,” in Thomas Jefferson’s memorable words. Such an individual does not interfere with my liberty: I remain free to think, to express my thoughts in material form, and to ignore his falsehoods or oppose them with better ideas if I so choose.

Freedom of speech is a rational principle. Like any rational principle, it is an absolute; which means: within its context it admits of no exceptions.

Apparent exceptions like a man yelling “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater represent a misunderstanding of the principle. As I’ve said, the principle of freedom of speech states that you can use your own property to express whatever ideas you choose–not that you can use someone else’s property. When on another’s property, you must abide by the conditions he sets. When you pay to enter a movie theater, for instance, there is an implicit agreement to respect the theater owner’s terms of use, which include that you cannot disturb the other customers enjoying the movie by, say, talking on your cell phone during the movie. And you certainly cannot act to recklessly endanger the lives of other customers by, say, pretending there is a fire and creating a riot. An owner of a movie theater could, of course, announce in advance that he allows his customers to say anything they like during the screening of a movie, but likely he wouldn’t retain many patrons.

Because freedom of speech is a principle, any “exception” to it actually means its destruction–which brings us to laws against “hate speech.”

From the author’s bio at The Philosopher’s Magazine:

Alan Haworth teaches history of ideas, ethics and political philosophy at London Metropolitan University and is the author of Free Speech (Routledge).

Steve Fuller is professor of sociology at The University of Warwick and is the author of Dissent Over Descent: Evolution’s 500-year War on Intelligent Design (Icon)

Academians like Steve Fuller and Alan Howarth would do well for their own intellectual growth by learning something from Ayn Rand.

2 Responses to “Who Knows What’s Free Speech”

  1. mahendrap said

    Nice post!

    Reminds me of a “law” passed by the Maharastra state in India against “spreading rumors”. It used to so happen that during extremely heavy monsoon rainfall, certain people used to raise false alarms that the dams in the region have started overflowing and soon cities like Mumbai and Pune will perish underwater. It caused great deal of panic, and hence the government passed this law that anyone spreading unsubstantiated rumors will be punished and sentenced.

    I wonder how “spreading rumors” and freedom of expression go together…

  2. […] cogently, and non-contradictorily as an Objectivist does (for example, just read this post about two philosophers arguing over what free speech is). The flipside of this is, unfortunately, there are only so few people in […]

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