There is no such thing as free speech

There’s been a lot of pontificating lately about freedom of speech. First, there were the offensive Mohammed cartoons published in the Danish newspaper JyllandsPosten, leading to riots and burnings across the Middle East. Lots of newspapers stood by JyllandsPosten, even publishing the cartoons themselves in a sort of global demonstration that they all have the right to lower their editorial standards.

Now there’s the case of Holocaust denier David Irving, who stupidly returned to the country in which he had committed a crime by proclaiming that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz, then was surprised to find himself arrested for violating Austria’s Holocaust denial laws. Plenty of bloggers have risen to criticize Austria’s judgement, crying “free speech!”

Problem is, there’s no such thing as free speech.

Don’t believe me? Try going into an elementary school and giving a reading of “Penthouse letters.” Or stroll into a bank and scream “this is a hold up!” How about telling an airport security guard you have a bomb in your suitcase? Or writing an article in a national newspaper claiming Bret Favre is homosexual. Why not publish your neighbor’s Social Security and credit card numbers? Or post flyers all over town claiming Wal-Mart’s selling microwaves for $10?

But those are all lies, you retort. Well, all except the first one (Victoria’s Secret models do have a thing for mechanics — honest!). But lying isn’t illegal (except when it is, like passing bad checks): for the most part we rely on social justice — ostracism — to take care of liars. And defamation doesn’t require that the defamer be lying. I might believe that Bret Favre likes hot-tubbing it with all five members of his offensive line, but in many states, if Favre can show that I was merely negligent in professing that belief on Oprah, he can sue me for all I’m worth.

Now I’m not saying the Danes are wrong for allowing their newspapers to print offensive cartoons, or that the Austrians are right for imprisoning a guy for being a bigoted lying asshole, but I am saying that crying “free speech” is a vast oversimplification of the issues involved here. Even in the “freest” countries, all speech is regulated. The question is, what limits do we place on those regulations?

In America, political speech has always been among the most protected forms, but even in politics, you aren’t allowed to lie about your opponent. Why should you be allowed to lie about the Holocaust? Perhaps it’s only because the people you might lie about are already dead.

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4 Responses to There is no such thing as free speech

  1. Michelle says:

    Problem is, there’s no such thing as free speech.

    I agree. There have always been rules and restrictions on freedom of speech. As far as the Muslim cartoons are
    concerned, I have been arguing on my blog that it is not JUST a freedom of speech issue. Many of those who are offended
    by the cartoons don’t necessarily see it as such; rather, they see it as an issue of respect. And when these papers
    republish the cartoons, those offended see the republication as a sign of disrespect and condescension, as opposed to a defense of freedom of speech.

  2. Orac says:

    In America, political speech has always been among the most protected forms, but even in politics, you aren’t allowed to lie about your opponent.

    Say what? What planet have you been living on?

    Politicians distort their opponents’ records all the time and not infrequently lie about them. None of them get thrown in jail just for lying about their opponent. Just look at the 2004 election, and observe this year’s Congressional elections if you don’t believe me.

    The other examples you give are straw men. Children do not have the same free speech rights as adults, and there is a general consensus that they shouldn’t be reading porn. Screaming “hold up” in a bank leads one to believe that you are about to commit a real crime and could cause a panic. Ditto telling a security guard that you have a bomb. Such examples are considered examples of imminent threat. As for the Brett Favre example, we don’t throw people in prison for libel; the offended party has to sue them for monetary damages but has to prove that (1) their reputation was damaged somehow; (2) the person doing the libeling knew what they were writing was a lie or had a “reckless disregard” for its accuracy. In the Wal-Mart example, real monetary damage could be done, and posting such flyers could be considered an example of malicious fraud.

    I don’t see the parallel to Holocaust denial in any of your examples.

  3. dave says:

    So bilking Wal-Mart out of a few bucks’ worth of PR is a punishable offense, but distorting the facts about a horrific historic event should simply be ignored? If I lie about Bret Favre, that’s “wrong,” but it’s okay to mislead people about the systematic slaughter of millions of people?

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