Even Free Speech Troubles Some People

Q. I read with interest your commentary on free speech, published at Capitalism Magazine. I am troubled by the idea of ‘freedom of ALL speech’. If ideas matter, and they lead to action, then perhaps speech that advocates the violation of fundamental rights such as life, liberty and property should be restricted.

Should the advocacy of murder, slavery, oppression and plunder be granted the sanction of being treated as civilized discourse? If the purpose of government is to protect people from physical harm, isn’t it reasonable to restrict the advocacy of initiating force and fraud?

If it is illegal to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater, should it be illegal to advocate communism? I think communism has deprived more people of their lives than theater fires.

Granted, no current government defines ‘the public interest’ properly as limited to the protection of fundamental rights, but perhaps it is the sanction of ‘freedom of ALL speech’ to include the advocacy of plunder and oppression that has brought us to our current state.

Dr. Hurd’s reply: I am sorry

that you are ‘troubled’ by freedom of speech, the greatest individual right honored by any government in human history. Freedom of speech implies the most important freedom of all, the right that makes all other rights possible: The right of a mind to think and act on (and take responsibility for) the product of that thinking.

I’m sorry to hear that you’re troubled—not because I care about you personally—but because your dislike of this most individual right is one shared by too many people today, perhaps more than ever in our nation’s history.

There used to be a saying in America that some time ago went out of fashion. It went something like this: ‘I couldn’t disagree with you more; but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.’ The point of this sentiment is that it’s not the content of speech that matters in a context of individual rights: It’s the right of the person to think it and say it, on his own property and on his own ‘nickel.’

Does a Nazi have a right to think that all Jews, or whoever the hated group is, should be killed? He absolutely has a right to think it and say it. And a just government also has the right—and the duty—to give that Nazi what he deserves if he so much as lifts a finger against any innocent person. Yet, that same just government will ensure that he can spew his idiotic hatred on his web site, in his books, or however else he chooses to convey it, using his own time and money, of course.

Why is this so hard for you to understand? Your letter demonstrates that you can form thoughts, complete sentences and articulate abstract ideas in writing. This shows me you are intelligent. Nobody with even this much intelligence could fail to understand the distinction between thoughts and action. Clearly, you do understand it. But you don’t care about it. If you don’t like an idea, then you want the speaker to be silenced. But what if I don’t like an idea that you like? How do we resolve that one?

You ask, ‘Should the advocacy of murder, slavery, oppression and plunder be granted the sanction of being treated as civilized discourse?’ You sneak a false assumption into your question. You’re counting on me not to recognize or acknowledge it, but you erred in your judgment. You’re implying that to honor the right of a Nazi to write or publish what he pleases is to endorse it. That’s what you mean when you say, ‘treated as civilized discourse.’

You imply that if I claim the right to free speech for a Nazi, I’m endorsing his ideas as civilized. I reject your implication. You know full well that somebody who wants freedom of speech to be respected in a society does not necessarily endorse what’s being said. You probably respect the right of some to say what they want, even if you don’t agree with it. You just don’t want everyone to have that right. You can’t stand the absolutism of it all, can you? But if you’re not going to respect free speech as a universal right—then the obligation is on you to identify who will and who will not have that right honored.

I know your answer will probably be: ‘Well, those who advocate evil things such as murder and slavery should not have the right to free speech.’ OK, fine. But what about a speaker who advocates a political view you dislike—a view you dislike because, you feel it might lead to evil, murder and slavery? Some claim that Rush Limbaugh, in his strenuous advocacy of free markets and capitalism, should be restricted from being on the radio, because, according to them, unbridled capitalism is tantamount to slavery and evil. Then there’s Oprah, who started something called ‘Oprah Radio’ to discuss (among other things) current affairs and political ideas. I can imagine the nature of those ideas without ever tuning in to her network, and I fully expect to disagree with every single one of them. I see Oprah as a socialist, through and through—a smug one, at that—and I maintain that socialism inevitably leads to murder, slavery and dictatorship, whether that’s what Oprah intends or not. Do I think she should be restricted? Absolutely not. I doubt you do, either. But then, how about Rush Limbaugh? Does she get a right that he will be denied?

Of course it is not, and should not, be legal to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater, unless the theater owner permitted it. No rational theater owner would ever tolerate or encourage such a thing, because it violates his own right to property—his right to allow his paying customers to enjoy the product they paid for. By using this stale and unoriginal example, you imply that a compromise of freedom of speech is required in order to outlaw the violation of the theater owner’s property rights. Excuse me? Fraud and trespassing are NOT the exercise of free speech. And I know you know that. It’s not your intelligence I hold in question; it’s your intellectual honesty. Quite frankly, like anybody who uses this rationalization to curb or restrict freedom of speech, I don’t believe you possess it.

As if you sense the weakness of your arguments, your last paragraph makes a final and bizarre attempt to desperately prop up your point. You imply that if we didn’t have freedom of speech, then maybe we wouldn’t see all the ‘plunder and oppression’ we currently observe in today’s society. I presume by ‘plunder and oppression’ you are referring to the actions of our present government, taxing and redistributing wealth at a pace and a scale never done before in all of human history. If that’s what you mean, I certainly share your characterization. However, by what wild stretch do you conclude that this was caused by freedom of speech? Freedom of speech means freedom to speak and advocate ideas. The only way to prevent plunder and irrationality— especially by government—is through persuading the majority to adopt rational ideas. It takes years to persuade people to think rationally.

New generations must be persuaded and educated time and again, as our current predicament proves. Without freedom of speech, rational ideas cannot be spread. Without freedom of speech, irrational ideas cannot be undercut, as eventually they always are (even if it takes decades). Preserving freedom of speech is the best way to prevent plunder and oppression! How do you think slavery was conquered? It went away in America, even though it took decades. In societies without free speech, it took centuries at best, and usually never even happened at all.

Claiming that government restriction of speech is the way to end plunder, oppression and chaos is the same as saying that government must shut down human thinking to ensure progress. This is one of the most unimaginably wrong things I have ever heard or read, and I couldn’t disagree with you more. Nevertheless, I’ll fight to the death for your right to think it–and say it.