How Free is Speech?

Expression has never been truly free, so long as two or more people were involved. The moment Thag threatened to punch Og’s nose for insisting that mammoth tasted better than sloth, a limit existed. Og could continue to declaim the virtues of mammoth, but he also understood that there would be a reaction to his words and it might involve physical rebuttal, so to speak. However, the State did not attempt to prevent him from opining. That would come later, with the advent of the State and, I suspect, of state religions.

Why religions? Because if you blaspheme the gods of the state, you are betraying the state, insulting the god-king (Egypt), and possibly ticking off the deities who keep terrible things from happening to everyone. No one with half a brain wanted to irk the storm god, or to endanger the harvest by saying that the king—the connection between the gods and mankind—was an incompetent rat-bastard. In Shang and Zhou-dynasty China, the monarch controlled your access to the tools needed to venerate your ancestors in ways that would benefit the ancestors the most and give them the most power, and thus to provide a form of security for your family, yet another reason not to speak unkindly of those in power. This is also why Christians got in so much trouble with Rome. Imperial Rome didn’t care what you believed, so long as you upheld the contract with the State gods. To do otherwise was to endanger the State and everyone in it, so failure to properly worship the State gods was treason.

By the late Middle Ages in Europe, laws existed against blasphemy, against insulting certain people, and against stirring up trouble in general. People lived in a world of group rights and group privileges, and in some cases group punishment. Laws against lese majesté, or insulting the monarch, existed around the world, and still do (for example, the Turkish penal code includes jail time for insulting “Turkishness” or Turkey and the Turkish government.) You did not want to insult the deity, or the monarch, because to do so was seen as lessening the power of the monarch, and a weak monarch led to nothing but trouble. England was a little different, but even so, limits existed. Two sources I’ve read maintain that a tradition existed in China where one could offer direct critiques of the emperor and government, but one was expected to commit suicide after presenting said critique as proof that one was serious. Such critiques were taken at face value and considered, but seem to have been rather rare.

One of the key features of the United States, inherited from English Common Law and elaborated somewhat, is that Americans have absolute right to freedom of speech so long as that freedom does not endanger others or lead directly to violence. The one exception, in general, is making threats against the life of the current president.* Otherwise the US has no lese majesté laws, nothing saying one person cannot criticize, insult, or otherwise speak their mind. There may be consequences for doing so, ranging from slander and libel laws to getting a fist in the nose or having people stop doing business at your store, but the federal and state governments do not interfere with speech. At least, that’s what the Constitution says. Starting 30 years or so ago, “protections” have crept in along with the idea of “hate speech.”

In other countries, insulting the monarch or heir to the throne is still punishable by a fine or prison sentence, although in general, you can insult someone else’s monarch. Germany had a law on the books to prevent abusive speech against monarchs that had gone by the wayside until it was invoked last year by Pres. Erdogan of Turkey after a German humorist made fun of him. The humorist was charged with insulting a ruler, and after the hue and cry in the media, the Bundestag voted to eliminate the law once charges were dropped, and it will go away on January 1, 2018.

As stated at the beginning of this little essay, so long as two or more people are involved, there has never been pure freedom of speech, the ability to say whatever one desires without fear of consequences. Today a new check on speech has appeared, promulgated by those who insist that certain groups need to be protected from hurtful words and ideas. In many ways, campus speech codes and federal hate crime laws are not that far from China’s Great Firewall and Sweden’s increasing media control. According to the US federal government, killing or assaulting someone because you dislike all [group members] is worse than just killing or assaulting them. College administrators and activists argue that hurting someone’s feelings is unjustified and should be banned, even if that person doesn’t know they have been insulted, or the speaker doesn’t realize that the words are an insult. Personally, I’m curious to see how “Intro to Criminal Law” is going to be taught without referring to such crimes as blackmail and rape, but I suppose a way will be found.

The laws outside the US would not be of interest to me in other than an academic sense, except that I cannot release the next Cat book in the UK and EU because of laws restricting defamation of religion, one religion in particular. Canada seems to be heading in the same direction, as has Australia. Which if you stop to think about it, is quite a slap against Muslims. The laws imply that Muslims are so delicate and their religion so tenuous that criticism of Islam and of followers of Islam causes physical harm and spiritual and emotional trauma. In reality, I suspect it has more to do with the governments’ desire to prevent the riots and mayhem that have unfortunately become associated with how some Muslims respond to rumors of insult.

Americans are unusual in that we have traditionally, at the national level, believed in the free expression of ideas and the unfettered ability to criticize government, the rich, politicians, religion, and pretty much everything else we can think of to gripe about and make fun of. No idea was seen as so fragile and precious that it needed federal protection from criticism. State and local laws and customs differed, and again, your right to insult me has never meant that I wouldn’t thump you for saying that my mamma’s biscuits were so hard that the county road crew used them to fill pot-holes. Incitement to riot is not considered protected speech, But unpopular opinions, especially unpopular opinions, have been protected. At least they were. Now?

*This may be changing, at least as applied and investigated.

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5 thoughts on “How Free is Speech?

  1. Hate speech laws are both stupid and unconstitutional. You don’t need a law to protect your right to say something that everybody agrees with, because nobody is going to complain about you saying it. Freedom of speech laws were made specifically to protect people’s right to say controversial and inflammatory things; and to protect their right to disparage and publicly disagree with the government.

  2. Apology ahead of time: I’m pretty much preaching to the choir here, I know.

    “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” a great philosopher* once said. Speech in this country has never truly been free. For the early decades of the Republic, the 1st amendment was largely held to apply only to Congress. States passed laws against sedition, and those laws were often ruthlessly enforced during the political infighting between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, the forerunners of the modern Democrats. Even when state governments weren’t enforcing such laws, angry citizens would make their opinions of one’s speech known… forcefully. Such as the besieging of a Federalist newspaper in Baltimore in 1812, during which the offended brought forth cannon. Those inside the building were taken into police custody, but were subsequently lynched** by a mob and brutally beaten. Congressman Preston Brooks (D – SC) physically assaulted Senator Charles Sumner (R – MA) on the Senate floor in a response to a speech Brooks took offense at, and barely received token punishment for it.The Mormons were more-or-less chased out of various places because they offended people. Bleeding Kansas. The list goes on an on. Having an opinion, and letting it be known, has never truly been free, even here in America.

    In the past couple decade or so, though, it has gotten particularly bad. For that, we have the Media-Educational Complex (MEC) to blame. The Media-Educational Complex is thoroughly infested by Progressives who’ve bought the Marxist-inspired dogmas (one hesitates to legitimize them as “theories”) related to power and group identity. Worse, the MEC is well situated to perpetuate their ideas on America’s unsuspecting youth. A recent survey found that a majority of Americans aged 18-29 oppose capitalism. Another survey found that among that same age cohort, a majority consider the sitting US president to be illegitimate. Perhaps worst of all, the domestic America MEC is largely anti-Western and anti-American. The MEC must be destroyed or reformed for the good of the nation and the world.

    The situation abroad is at least as dire. In addition to a Marxist mindshare as high or higher in foreign media and education, foreign governments have even more control over such. While there are some heterodox media sources here in America, official government interference abroad can often force media compliance. Similarly, while America has private school and homeschooling as possible alternatives on the education front, homeschooling is often forbidden abroad, and private school is often impractical – or subject to tighter government controls.

    That these governments and the media and educational institutions are so concerned about avoiding offense to Islam is a symptom of this. Some of the loud secularist moves of years past were in fact attacks on Christianity and Western values. Trying to avoid offense to Islam is a continuation of that.

    I’m sorry, I’ve started rambling. I’ll stop now.

    * For certain values of “great” and “philosopher”. YMMV.
    ** In the proper sense of “being illegally removed from police custody.”

    • 🙂 Oh yes, the exceptions and “That’s not what’s supposed to happen”s fill books and books. The distinction between federal rights and limitations vs. state and local alone is a volume of constitutional history (Vol. 1 1783-1956 or so, depending on which cases you look at).

      Europe and other places with a “rights are granted by the ruling power and can be limited for the good of the ruled” strongly outnumber the “rights exist period end, and any limitations are agreed to by the people and given to the State for the sake of collective peace and prosperity” places by, oh 200:1, depending on what the map looks like at that moment.

      • Yeah, many countries have what look on paper like most of the rights (sans 2nd amendment) as Americans enjoy, until you get down into the weeds and see all the places where the government can interfere with those rights, or suspend them at will if it declares an emergency. Yes, Congress can suspend habeas corpus here in America in event of rebellion or invasion, but that’s a far cry from a president or prime minister unilaterally declaring an emergency and restricting people’s rights. (Although, back to the “exceptions” you mention above, Lincoln and FDR both did a bit of that by executive fiat.)

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