The Privilege and Responsibility of Free Speech

The First Amendment defends our right to free speech.  Both private citizens and public officials have the right to speak freely and voice their opinions.  However, freedom comes with responsibility.  Free speech that leads to violence and harm of others makes the speaker complicit in the deed.  If what you say causes someone to harm another person you should be held responsible, albeit to a lesser degree, for these actions.  Unfortunately, the negative power of words is being revealed in the wake of the passage of health care reform.

Throughout the past year we have witnessed one of the more politically polarized eras in our nation’s history.  Over the last eighteen months we’ve heard much rhetoric from both sides of the aisle regarding health care reform.  Public officials, private citizens and talk show hosts (who fall somewhere in between these groups) set forth their views about health care reform—often quite freely and with little, if any, personal censorship.

Before I go on, let me be clear.  I’m not arguing for or against the health care legislation.  Rather, I’m arguing that that free speech is a great privilege that comes with great responsibility.  I believe many of our public officials and talk show hosts failed miserably in exercising this right in a socially and morally responsible manner during the past year.  For that, they should be held accountable for being complicit in the negative, demeaning and threatening behavior of those who follow them.

Since the passage of the health care bill Sunday evening, Democratic leaders who voted to pass the legislation have received myriad threats to their life and overall well-being from people angry about, and staunchly opposed to, this legislation.  Certainly these individuals should be held responsible and prosecuted accordingly; however, at some point you have to ask what influenced these individuals and/or groups to act in such a manner.  Given that most Americans have not (and will not) read the health care reform bill, they depend on the public officials and talk show hosts whom they trust to give them the “facts.”  Could the demeaning, caustic, belligerent and, in my estimation, untrue or partially true rhetoric of public officials and talk show personalities opposed to the legislation be a factor in such behavior?  And if so, should they not be held responsible for the consequences of their free speech?

When the Republican leadership calls the health care reform bill a “government takeover of health care” and equates it with socialism when it is not, should they not be held responsible for this misinformation that breeds fear, resentment and anger in their constituency?  When Sarah Palin fabricates the existence of “death panels” in the legislation (and when conservative leaders continually repeat these claims), should they not be held responsible?  When you have talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck comparing Obama to Hitler and the health care reform to the eugenics practiced under Nazi Germany, are they not complicit in the violent, mindless, immoral actions that we are seeing?  When those opposed to health care reform raise the ire of small business owners by telling them that the government is going to force them to provide health insurance to all their employees—when this is NOT true according to Politifact.com—should they not be liable?  When you have House representatives yelling out “baby killer” at Rep. Stupak when he spoke in favor of the bill—which will NOT fund abortions with federal tax money—should they not be held accountable when Rep. Stupak receives vitriolic voicemails expressing the hope that he contracts cancer and dies?

Yes, Republican leaders have condemned the violet threats against Democrats, but is this a case of “too little, too late”?  Does condemning violence that was created, at least in part, by your own misinformation, half-truths, and caustic rhetoric really solve anything?  Should they not be held responsible for the (re)actions of their followers?  

To be fair, analogous situations at least partly fueled by similar rhetoric on the other side of the aisle, arose during Bush’s presidency.  Those whose free speech was used poorly and led to similar behavior against Bush and Republican leaders should have been held responsible.  However, this does not justify the current state of affairs, but only further illustrates the great responsibility that comes with freedom of speech. The question I’m raising transcends political partisanship. 

Does the first amendment protect free speech without any consideration of the consequences or do those who speak freely, especially those in positions of power and influence, have a moral responsibility to censor themselves?  And if they fail to do so, should they not be complicit in the violent, threatening behavior fueled by their free speech?  There are protections against libel and slander, should there be consequences for those whose hate-filled rhetoric leads to violence?

Misinformation is ubiquitous, but our public officials and talk show hosts should know better than to intentionally spread demonstrably false information to their constituents, and should be held accountable when they do so.  Saying something enough times does not make it true.  However, it can persuade others, perhaps even yourself, that it is true.  As we are witnessing, hate-filled speech can have devastating consequences.  Free speech comes with responsibility, and those who use their free speech in ways that lead to violence and/or threats of violence should be held accountable for their actions.

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9 responses to “The Privilege and Responsibility of Free Speech

    • Horatio,

      I appreciate you sending me your article on the topic. I haven’t had a chance to read more than the opening paragraphs, but wanted to comment on your theory or thesis. You suggest that because we are taught how to speak, write and read (to communicate) and thus have no limitations on these abilities other than what our particular mental (or, in some cases, physical) faculties allow. I would agree that our ability to communicate is not given to us by anyone other than, perhaps, those who teach us to do so and by our choice to use these abilities. However, there are at least two issues I find in this thesis.

      1. We are also taught (or teach/decide ourselves) how to act and yet most would not deduce that we are then free to act however we choose simply because we learned these behavioral traits without state intervention. Theoretically, both freedom of speech and freedom of action are not privileges. They are simply part of being alive. We are born with the ability (and learn to use the ability) of speech and action. However, this is not an absolute freedom without any limitations, because what we say and do has consequences and thus, even though we are theoretically free to do and say as we please, our culture, our environment, our country of birth influences and, to some extent, controls and limits these freedoms just as naturally as our speech develops naturally.

      2. The primary issue I see between your article and mine is that you take issue with the reference to the “privilege” of free speech. While I haven’t read your whole article, it doesn’t appear that you have a problem with the concept of using speech in a socially conscious and responsible manner. Again, I agree, in theory, with your thesis that free speech is not given to us by the state. We learn to speak and thus are free to speak in proportion to our ability. However, it is a historical reality that speech has been limited by the state, in so far as citizens have not been able to voice their opinions and perspectives as freely and openly (without fear of state reprisal) as the citizens of the United States (and other nations with equivalent constitutional protections). Thus, I think it is still valid to say that we have the privilege of free speech. Even though I don’t mean that we are given the physical/mental ability to speak by the state, we are granted a forum to speak freely that has not been enjoyed by a vast majority of humanity throughout history.

      Again, thanks for sharing your post, and I look forward to reading the rest of your thoughts.

      • The difference is that actions can have a direct influence on other people. Holding a gun against someone’s head will necessitate certain actions, i.e. it is force. Speech, on the other hand, doesn’t necessitate any action. Just because I say something offensive, doesn’t mean you have to act a certain way.

        Also, I think speech is an absolute right legally. Of course, we have moral responsibilities, but I don’t think the state has any part to play in it.

      • There is a difference between actions and speech, although I disagree with your assertion that actions alone have a direct influence on others while speech does not. To use your example, holding a gun to someone’s head is an act of force, but it only results in fear. The statement, “if you don’t do such and such I’m going to shoot you” influences the person’s actions just as much as the gun to someone’s head. The words influence the person’s response just as much as the action. Moreover, I don’t feel that you’ve adequately responded to my position that freedom of speech is a privilege based on the historical reality that in certain nations there has been granted by legal means a greater “freedom of speech.” You’re arguing on a philosophical level, which I don’t disagree with (although I would say that actions and speech are not different based on the definition given in your own theory/thesis). However, there is more opportunity to speak freely without fear of government reprisal in certain nations than others (thus, I believe calling freedom of speech a “privilege” in the context of living in the United States a valid assessment). You were theoretically as free to speak in the the United States as you were in Soviet Russia, however, you would not face the same response in both nations. The Soviets would (possibly) agree with your argument that people have the right to say whatever they want, but they would (possibly) respond by shooting you, whereas in the United States the response would have been different. Thus, I have to stand by my assessment that freedom of speech is a privilege.

      • I disagree because the way you are arguing it is that because the United States gives you greater freedom to speak your mind, that it is a privilege. Not at all. The right exists regardless of the government. It is only that some governments restrict speech more than others. Of course, we are lucky to have been born in nations that accept free speech (to an extent) — the United States and Australia, respectively — but that doesn’t mean we should consider it a privilege. Privileges can be taken away. Rights can’t.

      • I certainly agree. I think we’re arguing semantics. All I’m trying to say is that actions are not truly any different than speech in your definition. I can control and influence someone’s actions just as much by my speech as by may actions. I don’t have to put a gun to someone’s head to influent what they do. I can merely speak words of threat (e.g. “I’m going to do _____ if you don’t do ______”), and I can control them just as much as if I, to use your example again, put a gun to their head. Again, I agree that speech is something that one is free to exercise without limits. However, actions are the same way (I’m distinguishing between speech and action for the purpose of our discussion, even though speech is a form of acting). We are born free to speak or act freely. No one can force us to do either. No one can limit what we do. However, those who govern have the same freedom. Thus, they can choose to speak and/or act in a way that negates/limits how we use our freedom to speak and act. Again, I think we are basically in agreement, I just recognize (as you seem to) that it is, in fact, fortunate (luck, privilege, opportunity) to be born in a nation whose laws allow us to speak and act with a great amount of freedom without negative repercussion. Theoretically, no one can control how you act or speak. Actually, people can and do control how you speak and act. I think this is what is actually causing our disagreement I am writing from the perspective of actuality. You are writing from the perspective of theory. In other words, I would agree that freedom to speak and act freely is a right, insofar as the only real control is ourselves (we can choose to speak and act in a way in which we know is illegal, frowned upon, or will bring negative consequences–for example, Jesus, Ghandi, et al). However, I maintain that freedom of speech (in the context of my article) is a privilege in so far as you and I are able to speak and act with a greater amount of freedom than much of the world. Theoretically, freedom of speech is a right and that cannot be taken away (all retain their freedom to speak whatever they wish). Actually, freedom of speech is a privilege and the amount of freedom can (and has) been taken away or limited.

  1. If there is an unlimited freedom (right) of free speach without legal limitation (only moral) is there a right to be free from listening to this speach? People who smoke do not have the right to harm another individual near them with their smoke…….what about the loved ones at a funeral who are forced to hear the “free speach” of those protesting gay people, for instance – the protestors are protected by law while the mourners are not. What about the above-mentioned consequences of “bullying” or other inciteful speach given in order to rouse others to harmful actions? If a “Go To Hell” sign is exhibited in a public space (against Obama) does that represent the “right of issue debates” which I suspect is what the “Freedom of speach” refers to……the honest, intelligent presentation of various points of view in order to gain additional persepctives in problem solving to aid decision making. Verbal violence and name calling (personal attacks rather than problem attacks) do not seem to achieve that objective and it would seem could be a deciding factor in whether certain styles of speaking could be judged either acceptable or unacceptable.

  2. The problem I have is that all too often when people talk of ‘responsible free speech’ what they really mean is not saying what one truly thinks.

    One man’s ‘hate speech’ may very well be another man’s truth…..and who gets to decide which is which ?

    And who gets to decide what speech is ‘insulting’ or ‘offensive’ ? Does the fact that someone takes offence at speech automatically make that speech offensive ? Fine….then let’s all be offended by anything than anyone might possibly say, which will lead to nobody saying anything.

    The thing I have increasingly learned with free speech is one cannot lay down any generic rules for it. Everything is context dependent. No two free speech situations are ever the same.., and what may be seen as ‘behaving responsibly’ in one context may simply be deference to political correctness in another.

    Thus I cannot accept any global ‘behave responsibly’ or ‘act respectfully’ for free speech…..least of all because some things simply don’t deserve an iota of respect.

    • This seems to support the idea of “relativism” or the idea that everything that is done in life is relative to the situation at hand. In other words no speach is better or worse than any other speach because there is no “authority” to define the value of this speach. So if this is true that everyone’s “truth” is equal to anyone else’s truth there is no way to determine truth much less evaluate this speach – thus total freedom to speak one’s mind. Now back in the days when this constitutional “right” was established we did not know very much about the psychology or neurology of persuasion. We have since learned that “speach” has consequences that can lead to violence. Many times this is the intent behind the speach. By categorizing free speach under the heading of unlimited freedom we are moralizing lying, misleading and manipulative speach. We are saying it’s our right to teach children anything we want in our public schools; we are equalizing opinion and fact, we are telling our children they are free to abuse other races, other religions, and tell lies about other people. We can present anything we want in the classroom. We can propogate fear, hatred and steer the masses toward unconscionable actions and then say it’s not our fault if they are stupid enough to believe us. I am afraid this idea leads us to accept false doctrine and accept our political leaders based on their distortions. If it is o.k. for them to lie and distort while campaigning why do we expect they will not do the same when in office. So we can say to them when they tell us the reasons used to justify the next war are true when they are not – then they cannot be held accountable…….they have free speech! You are free to present your opinions regarding solutions to problems that affect everyone – in a responsible fact based – evidence based manner – when the intent is a positive solution rather than promotion of more and worse problems based on attempts to control and manipulate. Violet Weinberg

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