Free Speech and Hate Speech

You know why free speech? Because we humans are not infinitely wise. That’s all. If we, or some of us, were infinitely wise, we would be able to tell which speech was OK and which not-OK. Then the wise could sort out which speech to allow. But none of us is infinitely wise.

The way out is to allow all speech, and let us be free to decide whether to accept whatever proposition makes sense to us, and let the nonsense just be. Let whoever wants to say anything have a go at it and allow us the listeners the freedom to choose what to believe and what to reject.

OK, so we allow all speech. But what good does it do us? It helps us advance our civilization. I am making an utilitarian argument here. It is good for civilization to allow all speech, and to let them compete in the marketplace of ideas, and those that withstand scrutiny survive and advance our understanding.

Hate Speech

Ah but what about “hate speech”, someone might say. It’s hard to objectively define hate speech. It all depends on the listener. For example, saying “There is only one god” is hateful to me but to another saying that there are trillions of gods is hateful. There can be no universally agreed upon standard on what is hateful. One man’s food is another man’s poison, as they say. Allow all speech because if you posit any speech to be hateful, then logically all speech is hateful. We’d be plunged in silence because every kind of speech will be judged to be hateful by someone or the other.

Recently one public intellectual, Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, got into some hot water because of some tweets he had made. They were clearly satirical and meant humorously. Some people (perhaps idiots by other measures) decided that he should be thrown into jail or beheaded or whatever. The details don’t matter. .You can anyway read about the fellow on popular media.

Anyway, they denied him bail, and threw him in jail. I am against imprisoning people for speech. If they throw sticks and stones, sure go head and lock them up. But you don’t do that if they speak or write — anything, even hateful things. Let everyone say what they will, is my motto.

Curiously, Mr Iyer-Mitra is not all that exercised about free speech. Here’s what he wrote in a tweet some time ago. Throw someone in jail for “hurting sentiments.”

So now he’s got the short end of the stick and having hurt the sentiments of some in Odisha, his butt’s in jail. It’s all karma, neh?

Anyway, I think Indians should have the freedom of speech. The Indian constitution, of course, does not protect the citizen’s freedom of speech. The 1st Amendment of the Indian Constitution basically says, “Indians can speak whatever they want provided the government agrees with it.” It’s like Henry Ford’s “Freedom of Color” which said that you could have any color Ford Model T as long as it was black.

The “freedom of speech and press” in India is a “Constitutional Right” — meaning the Indian Constitution grants that right to a citizen. What the Constitution grants, the Constitution can take away. The freedom of speech is not a “fundamental” right.

This is in contrast to the freedom of speech and of the press in the United States. Way back in 1791 (if I have my date correct) the US Constitution’s “Bill of Rights” dictated (among other things) that the “Congress shall make no laws abridging the freedom of speech and of the press.”

Note what that implies. It implies that the constitution is not granting the freedom of speech. The freedom of speech exists prior to the constitution. The constitution is explicitly prohibiting the legislators (Congress) from enacting any law that messes with the freedom of speech.

Mr Iyer-Mitra is in trouble because he’s an Indian citizen. He does not have the protection of the constitution that Americans have. I have little sympathy for his troubles because I don’t think he believes in the absolute freedom of speech. I don’t care who says what. I want everyone to have the freedom of speech because I want it for myself.

Freedom is a “side constraint.” I want freedom. And therefore I will not ever advocate any restrictions on the freedom of others. As Lincoln put it, “Just I would not want to be a slave, I would not want to be a master.”

Everything I stand for is predicated on freedom.

Picture credit: The picture at the top of this post is a picture of Sproul Plaza in the 1960’s at UC Berkeley (my alma mater.) They used to have free speech at Berkeley. Now they have lost that freedom. I got the picture off of the web. It’s not mine.

Further Reading: I have a bunch of posts on “Freedom of Expression.” Please do take a peek at them. 

Author: Atanu Dey


15 thoughts on “Free Speech and Hate Speech”

  1. Thanks Atanu for voicing my thoughts.
    Are there any protests ongoing in favour of Abhijit Iyer-Mitra?

    On a slightly unrelated note, I absolutely loved Jay Panda’s blog on Sabarimala and its differentiation with Triple-Talaq.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. @keshavbedi

      I believe in right to free violence-inciting-speech as well.

      If X is giving sermons exhorting terror attacks, I will allow that. If terror attacks do happen due to the incitement, I will arrest the fellow who executed the attack. Not the sermon preacher.

      If I am law enforcer, I will infiltrate X’s sermon sessions with spies and track his followers to preempt actual attacks. So it is not just my ideal for free-speech, but practical utility as well.


      1. All ideas are an incitation in some sense. I highlighted the word ‘imminent’ in my reply. Meaning a speech from which immediate violence results in. So, anyone teaching communist revolution shouldn’t be barred from speaking because he/she is not inciting imminent violence.

        Laws serve the purpose of deterrence and they should be made keeping in mind the social context in which they’re made. It’s very well to make an abstract argument saying people are not herds, they’re beings responsible for their actions and therefore those carrying out violence are responsible and not one giving the speech for imminent violence. But when you have a real situation, where, for instance, a person gathers a mob of 1000 persons and asks them to attack a particular temple and immediate violence results in from it, I think in such case the deterrence which is expedient and effective is to bar such speech and make it punishable.
        It’s not expedient nor is it an effective deterrence to make laws only for punishing the ones doing violence and not for those giving such speech. For greater the mob, the less likely is an individual to be caught after such a violent incident. Also, leaders giving such speech are more cautious and calculatig of the punishment than the people belonging to the herd who execute such speech, et cetera.

        In short, fixing the leaky faucet is better than constantly wiping the floor. Isn’t it?


        1. Keshav Bedi, I disagree. Your argument that inciting a mob through speech should be prohibited is weak. What should be prohibited is the act that directly harms another person or his property.

          Let’s take a real example. The holy book of Islam, the Quran (9:5) says – “So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captive and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush …” That’s an incitement to violence. I would like it to be prohibited but my principle would not allow that.

          Most of the Islamic terrorism is justified by a reading of the Quran. It would be expedient to ban that book but in a free society, to make space for good ideas, you need to allow bad ideas.


        2. Keshav Bedi wrote, “All ideas are an incitation in some sense.” That can’t be right. Here’s an idea: the earth revolves around the sun. I don’t see how that is an incitement to anything at all. It’s just a proposition.

          I agree that fixing the leaky faucet is better than constantly wiping the floor. What remains to be determined is what is the faucet that needs fixing. I think restrictions on speech is the leaky faucet which lead to a lot of water where it’s not needed.


    2. I like the old English adage — Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me. A variation of which goes

      Sticks and stones may break my bones
      But names will never harm me.

      On the matter of speech, I am uncompromising. No limits. Speech that tells people to harm others included. Actions matter. If you misread what I wrote or misinterpret what I meant and then go commit violence against another, am I responsible? Even if I were to explicitly instruct you to go break Joe’s kneecaps, you acted to harm Joe, not me. As long as people are considered to be responsible adults with their own will and volition, they are responsible for their acts.

      The American supreme court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., held in 1919 that it is reasonable to restrict speech that is equivalent to “Shouting fire in a crowded theater”. I disagree. And indeed Holmes himself changed his mind.

      Shouting fire in a crowded theater is only dangerous if you’ve raised a society of gullible panic-stricken idiots. (That’s an observation made by someone on the usenet decades ago.) Hitchens demonstrated that shouting “fire” didn’t do anything at all by shouting that word many times in crowded halls.

      Use sticks and stones — be punished. Use words — not a problem.


      1. 1.)Your argument is basically this is how things SHOULD/OUGHT to happen. My argument is what will and will not happen if you do x and y.
        People of our country are not even adequately literate, leave aside being educated on free speech. In such a scenario, saying that it’s okay to incite imminent violence will lead to lynchings on a daily basis. Your argument is, “Let that be, but I will uphold my argument due to its intrinsic worth.”
        India has around 6,68,000 villages and towns and only about 12,500 police stations. You cannot expect police to spot N number of persons involved in a mob violence daily and punish them and expect such actions to create a system of deterrence preventing such further mishappenings. One has to consider the social realities of a place and frame laws accordingly, not by abstract reasoning which doesn’t take consideration of situations prevailing at certain place and time.

        2.) I asked about 3 years ago from a Muslim friend about violent passages in Qur’an such as what you have stated. He replied that the passages have a context of war and these are not dictats issued to Muslims to do it now. He said it’s equivalent to citing a passage from Bhagavad Geeta wherein Krishna exorts Arjuna to kill his own family members, without specifying the context. One can by a similar tone say that Bhagavad Geeta is immoral because it asks one to kill one’s own family members.
        We should not misstate the positions of our opponent. Islam is a toxic mixture of certainity and exclusivity and it’s claim resting on little or no evidence. This much is undisputed and we should argue on that.

        3.) By my statement that “All ideas are an incitation in some sense” I meant ALMOST ALL ideas are an incitement in some sense. It shouldn’t be taken literally.
        Nevertheless, even the idea — the earth revolves around the sun — to a person who is not acquainted with the basics of cosmology or astronomy is an incitement to think and investigate further because it’s so counter intuitive to an ignorant person.
        By expressing ideas through their speeches, writings and blogs, speakers or writers, like yourself, exhort or incite another to think or act further. Therefore, the word incitement is not sufficient for barring a speech, and I therefore qualified it with an incitement to imminent violence.

        P.S. – I broadly agree with Oliver Wendell Holmes when he said “Not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought we hate.”
        The only constraint I place is that a speech shouldn’t incite imminent violence, or in a country like India, it will have serious consequences. This constraint doesn’t seriously impinge on the domain freedom of speech either. Considering a speech as ‘hateful’ is largely subjective and barring a ‘hateful’ speech seriously impinges on free speech. Therefore objections of this sort should be done away with.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Mr Bedi, your assessment of Indians as being beastly people who need lashes and chains to behave civilly leaves me stunned. Also, your Muslim friend’s pathetic apology is indicative of how idiots think.


  2. Thanks for explaining a realistic situation. It made me do some hard thinking.

    I will still not punish the preacher. In your case it seems that authorities know beforehand that a violence-inciting speech will be given. I will stop the preacher till I gather forces to be able to cordon/control the thousands that come to listen to sermon. Then I will allow the preacher to speak. If I cannot gather the protection, I will ask the preacher to wait but I will not punish him.

    The reason I am going to such extent is because I am very uneasy with the word IMMINENT. Who decides what is IMMINENT? Who decides how close is IMMINENT?


    1. It’s not really what I meant. That authorities will become omnipotent to know when a speech inciting immediate violence will be given.
      What I meant was that having a law punishing speech causing immediate violence will create a deterrence and will prevent others from making that kind of speech(seeing examples of those who got punished on making such a speech.)
      It’s expedient and serves the purpose of preventing killings in large numbers without impinging seriously on free speech.

      Imminent violence from a speech can be decided easily by circumstantial or direct evidence. That’s been the law since long in US and England as well I think.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. He replied that the passages have a context of war and these are not dictats issued to Muslims to do it now.

    Wait, The Holy Koran by its own admission is THE book and final book. It is context-free because it has universal truth that is true irrespective of time. There are many Fatawahs that require Muslims to sit while peeing and use either water or stone to clean their asshole because Prophet did it that way and hence that is how Muslims should do it even today. Clearly if prophet was busy slaying idolators muslims are duty bound to do so even today.


  4. As Yuval Harari says, Big-Data is godsend for Totalitariam regimes:

    China has a radical plan to influence the behavior of its 1.3 billion citizens: It wants to grade them based on aspects of their lives to reflect how good (or bad) a civilian they are.

    In 2014, China’s cabinet released sweeping plans to establish a countrywide social credit system by 2020. Local trials covering about 6 percent of the population are already rewarding good behavior and punishing bad actions, with capital city Beijing due to begin its program by the end of 2020. Since 2015, a national network that collates central and local government information has been used to blacklist millions of people from booking flights and high-speed train trips — part of a system that could one day be linked to the social credit program.

    Why does China say it’s doing this?

    “Keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful.” That’s the guiding ideology of the plan as outlined in a 2014 document.


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