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.
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.