In any “liberal democracy” that has constitutional protections for “free speech,” there will also be laws against “inciting violence,” “hate speech,” “threats,” “slander,” “libel,” “harassment,” and other “speech codes.” This is because the government, or those who voted on the passing of such laws, worry about the potential threat un-regulated speech will have on the levels of violence and disharmony in society. They worry about people being able to yell “fire!” in a theatre, which can cause (which is a key word here for legal reasons) physical harm, not being held liable for such speech. As much as I understand these worries, I am of the opinion that the potential evils brought about by a lassez-faire approach to speech morally outweigh the evils of blasphemy laws and censorship.
This does not mean that I find laws against harassment and threats of violence problematic, it just means that I worry about government censorship. For a long time us liberals have only agreed with our free speech, that is, politically correct and sanitized speech. We do not want hate-mongers to have the same rights of speech as us. We also do not want those we consider “radical” (anarchists, socialists, Marxists, neo-Luddites, etc.) to have the same rights. But the whole point of free speech is that it is not only for certain groups or certain individuals, but for everyone under the law. And once we allow the government to be the final arbiter on what counts as free speech and what does not, we are in for serious trouble. After all, the “government” has motives and vested interests.
Whenever I hear about the Westborough Baptist Church, some bigoted Islamic Cleric, and fundamentalists of all stripes saying something awful, I think, “I cannot stand what they say, but I believe in their right to say it.” That is, just because I find something offensive does not mean I think the government should agree with me and silence those I disdain. After all, what if they did the same to me? Also, just think about the opposite for a second: someone cannot say this or that because it may offend someone. Making certain expressions and speech a crime is rather Orwellian. My speech is not physically hurting anyone, and if it offends people, so what? The classical liberal position was in agreement with John Stuart Mill when he said, “the only purpose for which power can be rightly exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others” (and I am fairly positive that Mill would not include “psychological harm” in this category). One simply cannot avoid offending everyone.
In fact, feminism (and many other positive social movements) flourished because of the freedom of speech. Dictatorships have been toppled, violence has been condemned, and rights have been fought for through freedom of speech. And yes, that means we let the crazies speak as well. But ultimately, we know this trade-off is worth it. Some people are so confident in these kinds of liberties, that they think the “marketplace of ideas” has a way of working itself out in a manner where extremist ideologies generally receive social disapproval, and ideas that help the world generally receive social approval. And if we wish to build a better future for women, minorities, and the rest of the population, we must keep free speech central. As Bell Hooks once said, “The political core of any movement for freedom in the society has to have the political imperative to protect free speech.”
So let’s not just act as if free speech is only for politically correct speech, or that it should not be given to bigots or people who offend us. Free speech means the freedom to offend. Let’s remember how necessary free speech is for feminism and social change, and not allow ourselves to be duped into linguistic revisionism, the Heckler’s veto, blasphemy laws, gag-orders, and censorship.
Kile Jones holds a Bachelors of Theology (B.Th.) from Faith Seminary, a Masters of Theological Studies (M.T.S.) and a Masters of Sacred Theology (S.T.M.) from Boston University, and is a current Ph.D. in Religion student at Claremont Lincoln University. He also holds a Certificate in Science and Religion from the Boston Theological Institute. He is the Founder/Editor-in-Chief of Claremont Journal of Religion (www.claremontjournal.com). His interests include religion and science, atheism, secularism, and philosophy of religion. He also reviews books for Reviews in Religion and Theology (RRT) and is a Contributing Scholar for State of Formation (www.stateofformation.org), an academic blog for emerging religious and ethical leaders.