“Free-Speech or Speech-Free?” by Kile Jones

Kile Jones, atheist[This post is written in response to the chilling effect taking place in the U.K. since the Woolwich Attack.  It is also in response to the uses of the Public Order Act of 1986.]

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.

By '65 Pontiac, Wikimedia Commons

By ’65 Pontiac, Wikimedia Commons

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.

By Steven at Clagnuts

By Steven at Clangnuts

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.

Categories: Academy, Activism, American History, Belief, civil rights, Ethics, Feminism, General, Human Rights, Politics, Women's Rights

10 replies

  1. I’m usually the a#*hole in the back of the comedy club “heckling” the folks on stage for a bad joke. So, I’m going to heckle you for a minute – bell hooks is capitalizing her name now? Ah hahaha.

    Great post overall!


  2. Yes, women have free speech amongst ourselves. I’d say that most speech that is broadcast on T.V. and radio is really men’s speech. We don’t have free speech as women, our ideas have been destroyed for eons, and no speech is more censored by the male left establishment that radical feminist speech. It is even censored on this blog.

    I don’t buy the idea that male speech and female speech are given the same weight, and hate speech against women, which is everywhere creates hostile work environments, a completely false sense of reality — witness the scarcity of T.V. programs even written by women. I find the greatest freedom of speech is within a woman only environment where we can go as far as we want to with ideas. We hear what men have to say endlessly, and this “liberal” male speech, well its suspect to me. I don’t buy how men define speech or ideas at all. I don’t buy their monopoly on what is written, what is given awards, what appears on TV, and what is safe for women. This is a liberal male perspective, not a radical one where women will have the right to say anything we want to, to demand absolutel freedom form the male oppressive force in the world. I want a large spaces of silence for men and voices for women. I think men need to just start listening, and listening and listening, and I think women need to talk, and be as radical as possible.


  3. Turtle Woman: Thanks for your thoughts. Can you tell me how they are censored on this blog?

    Stout Fellows: Good one. I meant “bell hooks.”


  4. Turtle Woman: Thanks for your comments. Can you tell me how they censor on this blog?

    Stout Fellows: Good one. I meant “bell hooks.”


  5. Kile, I agree with you by and large, and have difficulty with political correctness within our movement (not how it has been used by the right to bludgeon the movement). But I take a more nuanced view when it comes to pornography, because I believe that it does hurt people, for e.g. the children used in kiddy porn.


  6. “…pornography, because I believe that it does hurt people, for e.g. the children used in kiddy porn.” I find this a curious line of reasoning Nancy, as if adult women don’t deserve the same protection from rape films (porn) that we want to keep children out of.

    And on to censorship on this blog— I think this blog gives too much of a free pass the the failings of liberal feminism. As a radical lesbian feminist, I don’t think it is possible for women to be part of in your face womanhating churches like the Catholic church and the Mormon church. Both churches are at war over lesbian existence, and there really is no salvaging them. The Mormon church help to get Prop 8 passed in the State of California, and it is my enemy.

    The censorship comes in not acknowleging this fact, and letting liberal hetero women get by with playing both sides of the fence. Being in those places, which rely on women’s volunteer labor to such a large degree needs to be addressed.


  7. Radical feminism needs to put forward more here. There is too much careerism of women in theology, and less critique of the whole idea of church and what it really does to women. As a lesbian, I object to male supremacy, I object to any person who attends these churches, and I call them on the carpet for aiding and abetting my enemies.

    I also object to the idea that men can be feminists. Men can be allies to feminism but their presence is problematic in a radical feminist context. I think the male left notion of freedom of speech is so off the mark, when what women are subject to is death threats on the internet by Male Rights Advocates — a hate group according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the idea that women aren’t actually not free FROM male speech— male speech manifests itself in rape porn, in rape culture, and in allowing porn to be seen as a “right” of male free speech.

    But it is radical feminism that is censored here, or somehow marginalized, and the liberal it’s ok to go to gay and lesbian hating churches because ahem, we are women, we get to have this hetero enclave, and we’re willing to keep these bastions of male supremacy going without critique. Well, my critique of this is huge, because unlike liberal feminists, I want to overthrow patriarchy, and that means the message clearly is how can we reach half the world’s population? How is it that women are so content with putting up with male supremacist churches, and that we are still even giving this validity without aggressive questioning of just what it is women need to do to be free. Free of everything the male churches stand for, free of porn, free to actually walk down the streets of big cities, free of male violence. You can’t negotiate with terrorists within patriarchy, liberalism is killing the cause of women’s liberation.

    These views are censored here. Radical lesbian feminists do critique women who are selling out to patriarchy, and we do question men calling themselves feminists to begin with, they aren’t.


  8. I think it is a mistake to think of any “value” as absolute. All values exist within a nexus of relationships and other values. Freedom of expression is certainly a value I appreciate, but I also worry about what internet access to pornography which by definition objectifies women–is doing to the intimate lives of men and the women who relate to them intimately. I don’t think the answers are easy. I also worry about hate speech whether it is directed against people of color, religious groups, homosexuals, women, or any other group.


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