Why defend free speech?
With freedom of speech and expression under attack, it's a good time to be reminded of why this freedom is so important, and why property rights are the only proper exception to a regime of liberty.
Pierre Lemieux - March 31, 2008
We learned this week that the Canadian "Human Rights" Commission has been using a false on-line identity to monitor incorrect opinions and enforce the Canadian "Human Rights" Act. This law prohibits the communication of "any matter that is likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt by reason of the fact that that person or those persons are identifiable on the basis of... race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, disability and conviction for which a pardon has been granted." There are similar provisions against hate speech in the Criminal Code.
That these laws were often used against alleged neo-Nazis does not matter, for free speech must be defended up to, and including, the expression of despicable opinions. Lately, as was to be expected, the "human rights" commissions (there are provincial ones, too) have been going after other targets.
Talking about Nazis, it is worth noting that the real ones were also great fans of speech bans. Section 23 of the 1920 program of the National Socialist German Workers Party called for a "legal fight against conscious political lies" (underlines in original). A Nazi government decree of March 21, 1933, aimed to punish "[a]nybody who intentionally creates or publishes a false or seriously misleading piece of information that could gravely undermine the... Reich." Statists have a way to be similar across time and place.
The first argument for unhampered speech is that there is no other way to discover the truth. In his famous monograph On Liberty (1854), John Stuart Mill wrote, about those who want to restrict free speech:
"[T]hey acknowledge that there should be free discussion on all subjects which can possibly be doubtful, but think that some particular principle or doctrine should be forbidden to be questioned because it is so certain, that is, because they are certain that it is certain. To call any proposition certain, while there is any one who would deny its certainty if permitted, is to assume that we ourselves, and those who agree with us, are the judges of certainty, and judges without hearing the other side."
Moreover, free speech and free debates convey information about the truth to those who have not discovered it by themselves. No one has the time and resources to inquire into every issue, and we often economize information by adopting those theories and conclusions that have withstood the test of free debates. In the future, when denying the Holocaust will have been forbidden for decades, what basis will people have to believe that it ever happened?
The continuous search for truth is important not only from a philosophical viewpoint, but also in scientific and economic matters. The poverty and military inferiority of Islamic and other totalitarian countries has much to do with their general repression of speech.
Even the most extreme forms of free speech have benefits. As the Bible (Exodus 32) reminds us, one’s god is just a golden calf for another. Blasphemy is a form of religious criticism. Western religions have become softer and less dangerous partly because of the Enlightenment’s attacks.
Hate--a natural and ineradicable human sentiment--is of no use in a rational inquiry, but can contribute to the defence of worthy ideals. So can contempt, which is the aristocratic version of hate. I would argue that the state scoundrels who are taking away our liberties rightly deserve our contempt. And it is legal to heap such scorn on them, for they have not yet added "state participation" in the definition of their favoured "identifiable groups" in the "Human Rights" Act.
The state itself frequently demonstrates hate and contempt in the form of laws targeting the hated lifestyles of unpopular groups--like, for example, smokers, gun owners, redneck types, iconoclastic critics.
Even libel laws are dangerous to free speech and the search for truth. Not only do they encourage the gullible to give credence to any defamatory statement whose author is not sued, but they can easily be used to stifle debate. During the decades preceding his suicide in 1991, wealthy businessman Robert Maxwell used libel suits to fend off journalistic investigations of his business dealings and his frauds.
The acceptable limits on free speech are of a private nature: one is free to say what one wants but not in somebody else’s living room or newspaper, except with the owner’s permission.
Another justification of free speech is that its negation requires censorship by political power, and there is no reason to believe that dictators, politicians and bureaucrats are more enlightened than what results from the free clash of opinions. Historically, the state has proven much more dangerous than free speech. In general, opinions only kill when they are espoused by the state.
Mankind has not changed much. At the dawn of the third millennium, we still face natural scares under recycled environmental superstitions, real or apprehended epidemics, wars of religion, censorship, and other old liberticidal fads. The threat of tyranny is still very real. And we should by now understand the slippery slope of state interference with speech.
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Pierre Lemieux is a professor, an economist, and author of numerous books and articles, and editor of Liberty in Canada, an online pro-liberty news source sponsored by the Canadian Constitution Foundation.