Thursday, June 17, 2004

I have a long-term interest in "freedom of speech", and in trying to understand and explicate what it means, or at least what it should mean. I am not especially interested in what any particular law or constitution or court has said about this. Rather, I am interested in what freedom of speech should mean, and in what laws our legislators should make regarding freedom of speech. Some of what follows is original, and some is not.

"Freedom of speech" means, in its simplest form, the freedom for me to speak to people who want to listen to me. This is indistinguishable from the "freedom to listen", that is, the freedom to listen to those who want to speak to me. I think it is also indistinguishable from freedom to write (to those who want to read me) and freedom to read (those who write for me). It is a special, and most important, case of freedom of association and freedom of activity between mutually consenting adults.

There are many issues that have to be discussed relating to this. Some examples are: libel and slander, copyright, conspiratorial speech, crime facilitating speech, crime inciting speech, advertising speech. I hope to address all of these in the future. For now, let me just say that libel and slander laws do such immense harm to freedom of speech and give us so little in return, that I think we should completely get rid of these laws.

What I want to address for now are some aspects of the issue of how the Speaker and the Listener get together. Some of this is very difficult. For example, what laws, if any, should there be restricting "spam"? After all, one man's annoying spam is another man's perceived penile improvement.

But some things are simple. If you want to speak to someone who you know doesn't want to listen to you, then this is not your right by freedom of speech, and it interferes with his right to freedom of association. For example, some people have suggested that protesters have the right to "confront Bush". But in fact, no one has (or should have) the right to confront anyone (other than law-breakers) who wishes not to be confronted.

So what then is the legitimate purpose of protesters? The legitimate purpose of protesters, or demonstrators, is to present information and opinions to those who might care to hear them. The targets of their statements are probably not the object of their protest but rather potential sympathizers, and decisions about how and where they should be permitted to protest should take this into account. Now I realize this is easier to say than to do, especially since we shouldn't expect or desire our public officials to make decisions about public speech that are too subtle. But there is no reason we should go out of our way to protect the right of some people to harass others.

For example, if I shouldn't be allowed to harass a co-worker by following her and imposing my views on her, then I shouldn't be allowed to get together with my friends and harass people going to an abortion clinic. Or harass delegates at a conference under the guise of an "anti-globalization" protest.

Now I am more for free speech than just about anybody, but we should realize that massive, harassing, often threatening demonstrations are not about speech, but rather they have more in common with a riot -- in which case they shouldn't be allowed, or with a parade -- in which case parade permits should be issued for use of public land on whatever basis parade permits are issued. In practice these massive demonstrations are very much against freedom of speech, since the participants usually do every thing they can to inhibit and drown out the speech of those they disagree with. I don't know exactly how demonstrations should be constrained, but the goal should be to minimize harassment and maximize the number of different views expressed that can possibly influence people.

A related issue concerns the question of when it is right to send someone a complaining letter/email/phone-call. Since we don't know how to regulate spam I don't expect we will be able to regulate this, but at least we can think about the morality of the situation. A typical example is when an ivy league professor says that Bush is worse than Hitler and what the U.S. really needs is to be attacked a lot more by terrorists. A typical response by outraged bloggers is that everyone who is disgusted by this should send the writer complaining email; a phone call or two wouldn't hurt either. Why do they advocate this? Are they seriously trying to change this person's views? No, they are merely trying to harass him so that he will think twice about making such statements in the future. I have been on the receiving end of such harassment, the perpetrators being ivy-league-professor-types and their friends. The real harm done by such professors is not the disgusting public statements they make, and not even the much more damaging harm they do by imposing their views in their classrooms, but rather their near total success at intimidating colleagues who disagree with them into silence. We should fight this intimidation, and not become part of it.

A similar problem arises with a recent remark by Tim Blair, who is well-intentioned and who I generally respect. Unfortunately he thinks that because Jon Bon Jovi made some public statements that some people disagreed with, it is appropriate for those people to drive by his house and shout things out. I don't think it is appropriate, and I don't think harassment like this should be legal.

I hope to write more on this subject. By the way, the best writer on the internet on Freedom of Speech, Eugene Volokh, has also discussed many of these issues here.

I've updated this post, adding a 4th item to the list of things bloggers shouldn't do.

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