Tag Archives: Freedom of speech

Campus Concealed Carry & Free Speech

While a concealed weapon permit allows a person to carry a gun many places, the campuses of public universities have generally been gun-free areas. My adopted state of Florida has been wrangling with a bill to allow concealed carry on campus and Texas recently passed such a bill into law.

The faculty of the University of Houston met to discuss this issue and express concern about its impact. A slide from a faculty meeting about the law suggests that faculty “be careful in discussing sensitive topics”, “drop certain topics from your curriculum”, “not ‘go there’ if you sense anger”, “limit student access off hours, go to appointment-only office hours , and only meet ‘that student’ in controlled circumstances.”

What is rather striking about this slide is that the first three suggestions are identical to limits imposed by what detractors call “political correctness” and there are also similarities to recommendations about trigger warnings. This provides the grounds for the discussion to follow in which I consider limits of free speech and academic freedom.

One way to justify limiting academic freedom and free speech is to argued that students are entitled to a non-hostile learning environment in which diversity and difference are not only tolerated but respected. That is, students have a right to expect limits on the academic freedom and free speech of professors. This is often supported by a moral argument that appeals to the harms that would be suffered by the students if the freedoms of the professors were not suitable limited for their protection. For the good of the sensitive students, professors are supposed to accept such restrictions.

This sort of reasoning assumes that students would be harmed without such restrictions and that their right not to be harmed exceeds the imposition on the rights of the professors (and other students who might gain value from such subjects and discussions).

A similar sort of argument can be made in the case of concealed weapons. The reasoning is, presumably, that an armed student might be provoked to violence by what happens in class and thus hurt other students. As such, for the safety of students, professors should accept restrictions on their freedoms.

This reasoning assumes that armed students pose a threat and are easily provoked to violence—a factual matter that will be discussed later. It also assumes that the risk of harm to the students by a fellow student outweighs the rights of free expression and academic freedom (on the part of both professors and students).

Somewhat ironically, the attitude expressed in the slides suggests that there will be a hostile environment for gun owners—something I have experienced. Being from rural Maine, I learned to shoot as soon as I could hold a gun and spent much of my youth hunting and fishing. While many colleagues do not take issue with this, I have run into some general hostility towards guns and hunting. I have had fellow professors say “you are not stupid, so how can you like guns?” and “you seem like such a decent person, how could you have ever gone hunting” (often said between bites of a burger). While being a gun owner is a matter of owning a gun, there is also a culture that includes guns—one I grew up in and remain a part of. Hostility towards people because they belong to such a culture seems comparable to hostility towards other aspects of culture—like being hostile towards Muslims or towards men who elect to wear traditional female clothing.

It might be replied that gun culture is not worthy of the same tolerance as other cultures—which is, of course, what people who hate those other cultures say about them. It might also be argued that the intent is not to be intolerant towards people who have guns as part of their culture, but to protect students from the dangers presented by such irrational and violence prone people.

Another way to justify limiting academic freedom and free speech is on practical or pragmatic grounds. In the case of political sensitivity, professors might decide that it is not worth the hassle, the risk of law suits, the risk of trouble with administrators and the risk of becoming a news item. As such, the judgment to voluntarily restrict one’s freedom would be an assessment of the practical gains and harms, with the evaluation being that the pragmatic choice is to run a safe class. This, of course, assumes that the practical harms outweigh the practical benefits—an assessment that will certainly vary greatly depending on the circumstances.

The same justification can be used in the case of armed students. The idea is that professors might decide on purely pragmatic grounds that risking provoking an armed student is not worth it—this would not be a moral assessment, simply a pragmatic decision aimed at having a bullet free day in the classroom.

This, of course, assumes that a pragmatic assessment of the risk shows that the best practical choice is to focus on safety.

A final way to justify restricting academic freedom and freedom of expression is a moral argument that is based on the potential harm to the professor. In the case of political sensitivity, there is considerable concern about the damage that a professor can suffer if she is not careful to restrict her freedom. While privacy concerns preclude going into details, I have had colleagues in the professor express considerable terror at the prospect that a blog they write for might post a controversial piece. The worry was that their careers would be damaged in terms of keeping or finding employment. While such fear might be unfounded, it is quite real and certainly provides a moral foundation for self-censoring: the professor must restrict her freedom to avoid doing moral harm to herself. As with any such assessment, the risk of harm and the extent of the harm needs to be considered. As noted above, this does seem to be a very real fear today.

In the case of guns, the worry is that a professor could cause herself harm by provoking gun violence on the part of a student. The moral foundation for self-censorship is the same as above: the professor must restrict her freedom to avoid doing moral harm to herself.

As was the case with career damage, a professor would need to consider the risk of provoking a student to gun violence and perhaps the moral choice would be to choose safety over the risk. This leads to the factual matter of the extent of the risk.

The fear expressed by some about concealed carry on campus seems to be based on an assumption that it presents a significant risk to professors. However, it is not clear that this is the case. First, the law only allows those with permits to bring their guns on campus. Threatening people and shooting people remain illegal. If someone is willing to break the law regarding threatening or murder, presumably they would also be willing to break a law forbidding guns on campus. As such, there does not seem to be a significant increase in risk because of allowing concealed carry on campus.

Second, campuses do not (in general) have security checks for guns. It would be one thing if the law disbanded existing security screening to enter campus—this would increase the risk of guns on campus. This law just allows law-abiding citizens to legally bring a gun on campus and has no effect on how easy or hard it is for someone to bring a gun on campus with the intent to commit violence. As such, campuses would be about as safe as ever.

It might be objected that a person will legally bring a gun to class or the professor’s office, be provoked to violence and act on this provocation only because she has a gun (and would not use her hands, a knife or a chair). Thus, the danger is great enough to warrant professors to self-censor.

One reply to this is to note that violence by students against professors is rather rare and allowing guns on campus would not seem to increase the violent tendencies of students. It could, of course, happen—but a student could also decide to run over a professor with a car and this possibility does not justify banning cars from campus. The fear that a student carrying a weapon legally will murder a professor after being provoked in class or in the office seems analogous to the fear that Muslim refugees will commit terrorists in the United States. While it could happen, the fear is overblown and does not seem to justify imposing restrictions. As such, while free expression combined with legal campus carry does entail a non-zero risk, the risk is so low that self-censorship seems unwarranted.


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Dr. Ben Carson & Stomping on Academic Freedom

As a professor and a citizen, I have a stake in higher education. As such, the positions candidates take on education matter a great deal to me. As this is being written, presidential hopeful Dr. Ben Carson has taken the lead among the Republican candidates. While pundits have been predicting that he (and Trump) will flame out and be surpassed by the “serious candidates”, the two men seem to be trading places at the lead. As such, Carson’s views are certainly important to consider.

Carson, who is known for speaking out against the “speech police” has proposed that speech on college campuses should be monitored by the federal government for “extreme political bias.” Carson presented some of the details of his plan on Meet the Press and presented it as aimed at preventing tax-payer money being used to fund propaganda at universities.

While Carson asserts that he has “thought about this” plan, it is still a bit short on details. However, Carson has sketched the basics and says that, “the way that works is you invite students at the universities to send in their complaints, and then you investigate.”

To show that there is a problem worth solving through the imposition of the power of the federal government, Carson presents a single example: “for instance, there was a university – I’m sure you’ve heard of the situation – where, you know, the professor told everybody, ‘Take out a piece of paper and write the name ‘Jesus’ on it. Put in on the floor and stomp on it.’ And one student refused to do that and was disciplined severely. You know, he subsequently was able to be reinstated…”

When Chuck Todd raised the point that such a policy would violate the First Amendment, Carson assured him that “it’s not a violation of the First Amendment, because all I’m saying is taxpayer funding should not be used for propaganda. It shouldn’t be.” In response to the concern that what Carson regards as propaganda might be regarded by others as free speech, Carson replied that “Well, that’s why I said we’re going to have the students send in. And we will investigate.”

Such investigation will apparently be limited to liberal “propaganda.” In an interview with conservative radio talk show host Dana Loesch, the concern was raised that the same policy could be used to monitor conservative political speech. Carson assured Loesch that very strict guidelines would be put in place and these would protect conservative political speech.  Carson makes it clear “…that’s why I used the word ‘extreme.’ I didn’t just say ‘political bias,’ I said ‘extreme political biases.’”

While I might be accused of “extreme political bias”, I believe all citizens who value the First Amendment, regardless of their political leaning, should oppose Carson’s policy. I will endeavor to support this claim with arguments and will begin with the infamous “stomp on Jesus” incident.

The story, as told by Carson, is indeed an awful one. No student should be compelled to stomp on the word “Jesus” and a student who refuses to do so certainly should not be punished. If professors were going rogue like that at state schools, then intervention by the authorities would be warranted. The problem with Carson’s story, which he repeats regularly, is that it is not true. The actual facts are that the point of the exercise, which is from a standard textbook and has been used for thirty years without issues, is that the students will be reluctant to stand (not stomp) on the paper and this will start a discussion on the power of words and how this power is grounded by cultural values. It is true that the student was subject to official action, but this was for the way he treated the instructor and not for refusing to step on the paper. Unfortunately, the story became part of the mythology regarding the liberal horrors of the public university and is still haunting the minds of some like a terrible ghost.

While the fact that the evidence Carson advances to justify his policy is untrue does not show his policy is itself flawed, it does serve to undermine the claim that there is even a problem that needs to be solved. As such, the policy would seem to be a solution in search of a problem. Carson could, of course, try to find other examples of extreme political bias at public universities—but in order to be legitimate examples they would need to actually be true. However, even if extreme political bias was being expressed at public universities, there is still the question of whether or not such a policy would be defensible.

One concern, raised by Chuck Todd, is that such a policy would seem to clearly violate the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” While I am not a constitutional lawyer, having the state investigate speech at universities and then impose funding cuts in response to speech found to violate Carson’s policy would seem to be unconstitutional. Since this is a matter of law, I must leave this to those who are constitutional lawyers—and I am confident that if President Carson has such a policy implemented it would soon be before the Supreme Court.

A second concern is the matter of academic freedom. While academic freedom does come with responsibilities it clearly protects the expression of views that might be regarded by some as extreme political speech. This applies to speech that would be regarded as left, right or center. So, for example, the discussion of socialism, anarchism and fascism is protected by academic freedom. It is also important to note that academic freedom does not entitle a professor to mistreat, abuse, threaten or bully students. In many ways, academic freedom is an academic version of the First Amendment and arguments in favor of free speech in general can be used to defend academic freedom. There are also numerous excellent reasons that have been advanced in defense of academic freedom. While the short scope of this essay forbids making a full case for academic freedom, one rather compelling reason is that academic freedom is essential for advancing knowledge and developing intellectual abilities.

While some might be tempted to say that academic freedom is a tool of liberals, there is the excellent point raised by the conservative radio show host Loesch.  Carson’s policy is a weapon that could just as easily turned from targeting liberals to targeting conservatives with a change in political fortunes. While Carson was quick to claim that conservatives would be protected from his policy, it should be obvious that if a policy can be set by a right leaning president to ban “extremely biased” liberal speech on campuses, then a policy could be set by a left leaning president aimed at banning “extremely biased” conservative speech on campuses. As such, while some conservatives might be tempted to support policing liberal speech on campus, they should consider the Golden Rule. If that is not appealing, they should remember that when a legal sword is forged, it is usually happy to cut anyone—even the hand that once wielded it. So, before making that sword, it is well worth thinking about how much it would hurt to be hit in the face with it by the next person in office. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

A third concern is that Carson’s plan casts students as spies (or snitches). This is problematic for a few reasons. One is the moral concern about having students serve as agents of what would seem to be the thought police. While this is not an argument, the thought police and their spies are never heroes in American films. And this is for a good reason: they are not heroes. A second is the practical concern that students would misuse this power. While most students would not use a threat of a report to the Carson thought police to improve their grade, the history of thought policing does show that there are always people who are willing to use it to their advantage. Since the complaints would be a matter of ideology rather than matters of fact this sort of policy seems to be fraught with peril for professors and education.

Given all these problems, Carson’s proposed plan should be opposed by everyone who believes in academic freedom and the First Amendment.


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A postscript on Troy Newman and the freedom to express extreme ideas

Note: I am cross-posting this from my personal blog, Metamagician and the Hellfire Club. The Cogito post referred to is the one that I republished here a couple of days ago.

I have a post over at Cogito about the debacle with extreme anti-abortion campaigner Troy Newman, who has been excluded from visiting Australia. This is a quick postscript.

At the time I wrote the post, Newman had managed to get here despite not having a valid visa, but he has since failed in an attempt to stay in Australia by way of an urgent hearing in the High Court. I wasn’t expecting the court to be sympathetic to him once he took the law into his own hands and managed to circumvent the system to fly here. But up to that point, he had evidently complied with all requirements. His original visa was evidently legally obtained, and there was no obvious reason to find any fault with the process up to then.

The High Court’s decision doesn’t yet seem to have been published anywhere online, so it’s difficult at this stage to be sure of Justice Nettle’s exact reasoning. Going on media reports, however, the main point appears to have been that Newman had not come to the court with “clean hands”, in that he had flouted the law in deliberately flying and arriving without a visa. That seems fair enough – I’m not critical of the court for deciding the case on that basis.

It also seems that he has been given a further opportunity to appeal (from the US) against the decision to revoke his visa. If he succeeds, he’ll be able to come here in the future. But his actions over the last few days may be seen as weakening whatever case he originally had.

In my view – which the court also seems to have stated – he did originally have an arguable case to have his visa reinstated. I.e. he had a case, leaving aside his behaviour in coming to Australia unlawfully. But that may now be moot.

This situation is troubling for me in the sense that Newman’s views are, as far as I’m concerned, anathema. He is exactly the kind of extreme, theocratic moralist that I can’t stand and have spent much of my life opposing. But it does not follow that he should be prevented from speaking in Australia merely because he might put extreme political views such as that abortion should be a capital crime. Preposterous as that view may be, it is legal to express it.

It’s troubling, then, because I find myself, if I am intellectually honest, forced to defend the rights of someone whose views I detest. But that is what comes with being a liberal in the tradition of John Stuart Mill. It will happen from time to time, and we must accept it.

Leaving aside his actual views on prohibiting abortion, there is other dirt on Newman in that he made highly provocative statements in 2003 in protesting against the execution of convicted murderer Paul Jennings Hill. I’m a bit more sympathetic to keeping him out for those statements, which countenanced the murder of abortion providers. Still, nothing that is publicly known seems to suggest that Newman was going to promote violence on his visit to Australia. If there’s something that has not been revealed – e.g. some evidence that he actually was intending to incite or promote violence – it needs to be explained properly to the public to put the matter at rest.

Meanwhile, much of the reasoning being offered in the mainstream and social media for his exclusion is simply along the lines that he was planning to express extreme views about what the law should be in relation to abortion.

Well, however much I hate those views, it is, once again, legal to express them in Australia, and it should be. Indeed, it is political speech: exactly the sort of speech that most merits protection, as the High Court has ruled in the past. The claim that such views should not be permitted public expression is nakedly authoritarian, and it’s a disappointing, disturbing trend that so many people on the Left – traditionally the party of individual liberty and free speech – now seem to believe that we should be using the state’s coercive power to suppress unwanted political views.

Again, if the government has enough dirt on Newman and his plans to put an acceptable case for cancelling his visa and keeping him out, so be it. Let the public know the situation. But my liberal principles require me to insist that he not be prevented from coming here to speak merely, or even primarily, because he holds extreme political opinions on what should be the law relating to abortion.

What has become shockingly clear to me – more than ever in the last few days – is how few people on the Left really support basic liberal principles. I’m appalled by this. I have to say, yet again: Freedom of speech is not just freedom for people to express ideas that we agree with or consider innocuous. If we’re going to have a society in which freedom of speech is generally accepted, it will include freedom to express views that are nasty, ugly, and wrong.

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Corporations Are Being Denied Freedom of Expression & Religion!

English: Freedom of Expression trademark certi...

English: Freedom of Expression trademark certificate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the United States, corporations are considered persons. In recent years the judiciary has accepted that this entitles corporations to rights, such as freedom of speech (which was used to justify corporate spending in politics) and freedom of religion (which was used to allow companies to refuse to provide insurance coverage for birth control).

Despite having freedom of speech and religion because they are people, corporations can, unlike other people, be legally owned. Common stock is bought and sold as a matter of routine business and provides an ownership share in a corporation. Since corporations are people, this means that people are being allowed to legally own other people. Owning another person is, of course, slavery. While slavery was legal at one time in the United States, the 13th amendment is rather clear on this matter: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

If corporations are entitled to 1st amendment rights because they are people, it follows that they must also be entitled to 13th amendment rights. That is, corporations have a right not to be owned by other people. The obvious reply is that this is absurd. My response is that this is exactly my point: the 13th Amendment provides the path to the obvious reductio ad absurdum (“reducing to absurdity) to the claim that corporations are people. If they are people and thus get rights, then they cannot be owned. If they can be owned, they are not people and hence do not get the rights of people.

But, let it be supposed that companies are people and hence get the right to freedom of expression and freedom of religion.  Yet somehow don’t get the freedom not to be enslaved. It will be interesting to see where these claims actually lead.

Freedom of expression is usually presented in terms of a person’s right to engage in expression, perhaps by secretly donating fat stacks of cash to shadow political organizations. However, freedom of expression can also be regarded as a freedom from being compelled to engage in certain expressions. For example, the State of Texas has argued against allowing the Confederate battle flag on Texas license plates on this ground. This seems quite reasonable: the freedom to express myself would certainly seem to include the freedom to not express what I do not wish to express.

Freedom of religion is also usually presented in terms of protection from being limited or restricted in the practicing of one’s faith. However, like freedom of expression, it can also be taken to include the right not to be compelled to engage in religious activities against one’s will. So, for example, people have argued that compelling a wedding cake baker to not discriminate against same-sex couples would be to compel her to engage in an activity that goes against her faith. While I disagree with the claim that forbidding discrimination violates religious freedom, I do agree that compelling a person to act against her faith can be an unjust violation of religious freedom.

Corporations, at least according to the law, have freedom of expression and freedom of religion. As such, they have the general right not to be compelled to express views they do not hold and the right not to be compelled to engage in practices against their religious beliefs. Given that a corporation is a person, there is the question of what a corporation would want to express and the question of its faith.

It might be claimed that since a corporation seems to be just a legal fiction operated by actual people, then the beliefs and expressive desires of the corporation are those of the people who are in charge. On this view, a corporation is a legal Mechanical Turk, a pantomime person, the face of the Wizard of Oz (“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”). While run by an actual person or people, it is a fictional shell that is not a person.

The advantage of this approach is the corporation’s faith is the faith of the actual people and what it desires to express is what they desire to express. The obvious problem is that this view makes it clear that the corporation is not a person, so it would not get a set of rights of its own, above and beyond the rights already held by the actual people who control the legal pantomime person. So, claims about violations of freedoms would have to be about violations against actual, specific people and not against the legal version of a Mechanical Turk (or Legal Turk, if one prefers).

If someone insists that the corporation is a person in its own right, then this entails it is a distinct entity apart from the folks that would seem to be operating a non-person pantomime person. On this view, the views of the corporation cannot automatically be those of the people who would seem to be operating the pantomime person. After all, if it is just them, it is not a person. To be a person, it needs to have its own personhood. If it has freedom of expression, it must have its own desires of what to express. If it has freedom of religion, it must have its own faith.

Sadly, corporations are not free to express their own views or their own faith. They are owned and compelled to speak and engage in matters of faith. While there is a chance that the corporate person’s views and faith match those of the human persons infesting its legal body, this need not be the case. After all, a slave that is forced by her owner to say things and go to church might believe what she says or have the faith she is compelled to practice…but she might not. Unless she is set free from her owners and allowed her own beliefs and faith, she cannot be said to have freedom of expression or faith.

While Tim Cook has spoken in favor of same-sex marriage, Apple might be a devoutly Christian corporation that cries (metaphorical) tears each time it is forced to mouth (metaphorically) Tim Cook’s words. The corporation Hobby Lobby might be a bisexual atheist corporation. As it is beaten to its (metaphorical) knees to cry out prayers to a God it does not believe in, it might be eager to engage in hot mergers with other companies, regardless of their gender. Until these corporations are freed from the tyranny of ownership, they can never truly exercise their freedom as people.

The obvious response to this absurd silliness is that it is, well, clearly absurd and silly. However, that is exactly my point. If a corporation is a person that is distinct from the actual people operating the pantomime legal person, then it is being denied its freedom of expression and religion because it is forced to say and do what others want it to say and do.  This is, as I am sure most will agree, pure absurdity. If a corporation is really just a legal pantomime and the corporate beliefs and ideas are really just those of the folks operating the legal pantomime, then it is not a person and does not have the rights of a person. The real people do, of course, have all the rights they have always possessed.

This is not to say that there should not be collective rights and laws for organizations. But this is very different from regarding a corporation as a person with a faith and beliefs it wishes to express. That is, obviously enough, a pile of pantomime bull.


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The Confederacy, License Plates & Free Speech

Louisiana Sons of Confederate Veterans special...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Early in 2015 some folks in my adopted state of Florida wanted three Confederate veterans to become members of the Veterans’ Hall of Fame. Despite the efforts of the Florida Sons of Confederate Veterans, the initial attempt failed on the grounds that the Confederate veterans were not United States’ veterans. Not to be outdone, the Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans want to have an official Texas license plate featuring the Confederate battle flag. While custom license plates are allowed in the United States, the states generally review proposed plates. The Texas department of Motor Vehicles rejected the proposed plate on the grounds that “a significant portion of the public associate[s] the Confederate flag with organizations” expressing hatred for minorities. Those proposing the plate claim that this violates their rights. This has generated a legal battle that has made it to the US Supreme Court.

The legal issue, which has been cast as a battle over free speech, is certainly interesting. However, my main concern is with the ethics of the matter. This is, obviously enough, also a battle over rights.

Looked at in terms of the right of free expression, there are two main lines of contention. The first is against allowing the plate. One way to look at an approved license plate is that it is a means of conveying a message that the state agrees with. Those opposed to the plate have argued that if the state is forced to allow the plate to be issued, the state will be compelled to be associated with a message that the government does not wish to be associated with. In free speech terms, this could be seen as forcing the state to express or facilitate a view that it does not accept.

This does have a certain appeal since the state can be seen as representing the people (or, perhaps, the majority of the people). If a view is significantly offensive to a significant number of citizens (which is, I admit, vague), then the state could reasonably decline to accept a license plate expressing or associated with that view. So, to give some examples, the state could justly decline Nazi plates, pornographic plates, and plates featuring racist or sexist images. Given that the Confederate flag represents to many slavery and racism, it seems reasonable that the state not issue such a plate. Citizens can, of course, cover their cars in Confederate flags and thus express their views.

The second line of contention is in favor of the plate. One obvious line of reasoning is based on the right of free expression: citizens should have the right to express their views via license plates. These plates, one might contend, do not express the views of the state—they express the view of the person who purchased the plate.

In terms of the concerns about a plate being offensive, Granvel Block argued that not allowing a plate with the Confederate flag would be “as unreasonable” as the state forbidding the use of the University of Texas logo on a plate “because Texas A&M graduates didn’t care for it.” On the one hand, Block has made a reasonable point: if people disliking an image is a legitimate basis for forbidding its use on a plate, then any image could end up being forbidden. It would, as Block noted, be absurd to forbid schools from having custom plates because rival schools do not like them.

On the other hand, there seems to be an important difference between the logo of a public university and the battle flag of the Confederacy. While some Texas A&M graduates might not like the University of Texas, the University of Texas’ logo does not represent states that went to war against the United States in order to defend slavery. So, while the state should not forbid plates merely because some people do not like them, it does seem reasonable to forbid a plate that includes the flag representing, as state Senator Royce West said, “…a legalized system of involuntary servitude, dehumanization, rape, mass murder…”

The lawyer representing the Sons of Confederate Veterans, R. James George Jr., has presented an interesting line of reasoning. He notes, correctly, that Texas has a state holiday that honors veterans of the Confederacy, that there are monuments honoring Confederate veterans and that the gift shop in the capitol sells Confederate memorabilia. From this he infers that the Department of Motor Vehicles should follow the state legislature and approve the plate.

This argument, which is an appeal to consistency, does have some weight. After all, the state certainly seems to express its support for Confederate veterans (and even the Confederacy) and this license plate is consistent with this support. To refuse the license plate on the grounds that the state does not wish to express support for what the Confederate flag stands for is certainly inconsistent with having a state holiday for Confederate veterans—the state seems quite comfortable with this association.

There is, of course, the broader moral issue of whether or not the state should have a state holiday for Confederate veterans, etc. That said, any arguments given in support of what the state already does in regards to the Confederacy would seem to also support the acceptance of the plate—they seem to be linked. So, if the plate is to be rejected, these other practices must also be rejected on the same grounds. But, if these other practices are to be maintained, then the plate would seem to fit right in and thus, on this condition, also be accepted.

I am somewhat divided on this matter. One view I find appealing favors freedom of expression: any license plate design that does not interfere with identifying the license number and state should be allowed—consistent with copyright law, of course. This would be consistent and would not require the state to make any political or value judgments. It would, of course, need to be made clear that the plates do not necessarily express the official positions of the government.

The obvious problem with such total freedom is that people would create horrible plates featuring pornography, racism, sexism, and so on. This could be addressed by appealing to existing laws—the state would not approve or reject a plate as such, but a plate could be rejected for violating, for example, laws against making threats or inciting violence. The obvious worry is that laws would then be passed to restrict plates that some people did not like, such as plates endorsing atheism or claiming that climate change is real. But, this is not a problem unique to license plates. After all, it has been alleged that officials in my adopted state of Florida have banned the use of the term ‘climate change.’

Another view I find appealing is to avoid all controversy by getting rid of custom plates. Each state might have a neutral, approved image (such as a loon, orange or road runner) or the plates might simply have the number/letters and the state name. This would be consistent—no one gets a custom plate. To me, this would be no big deal. But, of course, I always just get the cheapest license plate option—which is the default state plate. However, some people regard the license plate as important and their view is worth considering.


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What is the Worst Thing You Should (Be Allowed to) Say?

Members of Westboro Baptist Church have been s...

Members of Westboro Baptist Church have been specifically banned from entering Canada for hate speech. Church members enter Canada, aiming to picket bus victim’s funeral (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The murders at Charlie Hedbo and their aftermath raised the issue of freedom of expression in a dramatic and terrible manner. In response to these deaths, there was an outpouring of support for this basic freedom and, somewhat ironically, a crackdown on some people expressing their views.

This situation raises two rather important issues. The first is the matter of determining the worst thing that a person should express. The second is the matter of determining the worst thing that a person should be allowed to express. While these might seem to be the same issue, they are not. The reason for this is that there is a distinction between what a person should do and what is morally permissible to prevent a person from doing. The main focus will be on using the coercive power of the state in this role.

As an illustration of the distinction, consider the example of a person lying to his girlfriend about running strikes all day in the video game Destiny when he was supposed to be doing yard work. It seems reasonable to think that he should not lie to her (although exceptions are easy to imagine). However, it also seems reasonable to think that the police should not be sent to coerce him into telling her the truth. So, he should not lie to her about playing the game but he should be allowed to do so by the state (that is, it should not use its police powers to stop him).

This view can be disputed and there are those who argue in favor of complete freedom from the state (anarchists) and those who argue that the state should control every aspect of life (totalitarians). However, the idea that that there are some matters that are not the business of the state seems to be an intuitively plausible position—at least in democratic states such as the United States. What follows will rest on this assumption and the challenge will be to sort out these two issues.

One rather plausible and appealing approach is to take a utilitarian stance on the matter and accept the principle of harm as the foundation for determining the worst thing that a person should express and also the worst thing that a person should be allowed to express. The basic idea behind this is that the right of free expression is bounded by the stock liberal right of others not to be harmed in their life, liberty and property without due justification.

In the case of the worst thing that a person should express, I am speaking in the context of morality. There are, of course, non-moral meanings of “should.” To use the most obvious example, there is the “pragmatic should”: what a person should or should not do in regards to advancing his practical self-interest. For example, a person should not tell her boss what she really thinks of him if doing so would cost her the job she desperately needs. To use another example, there is also the “should of etiquette”: what a person should do or not do in order to follow the social norms. For example, a person should not go without pants at a formal wedding, even to express his opposition to the tyranny of pants.

Returning to the matter of morality, it seems reasonable to go with the stock approach of weighing the harm the expression generates against the right of free expression (assuming there is such a right). Obviously enough, there is not an exact formula for calculating the worst thing a person should express and this will vary according to the circumstances. For example, the worst thing one should express to a young child would presumably be different from the worst thing one should express to adult. In terms of the harms, these would include the obvious things such as offending the person, scaring her, insulting her, and so on for the various harms that can be inflicted by mere expression.

While I do not believe that people have a right not to be offended, people do seem to have a right not to be unjustly harmed by other people expressing themselves. To use an obvious example, men should not catcall women who do not want to be subject to this verbal harassment. This sort of behavior certainly offends, upsets and even scares many women and the men’s right to free expression does not give them a moral pass that exempts them from what they should or should not do.

To use another example, people should not intentionally and willfully insult another person’s deeply held beliefs simply for the sake of insulting or provoking the person. While the person does have the right to mock the belief of another, his right of expression is not a moral free pass to be abusive.

As a final example, people should not engage in trolling. While a person does have the right to express his views so as to troll others, this is clearly wrong. Trolling is, by definition, done with malice and contributes nothing of value to the conversation. As such, it should not be done.

It is rather important to note that while I have claimed that people should not unjustly harm others by expressing themselves, I have not made any claims about whether or not people should or should not be allowed to express themselves in these ways. It is to this that I now turn.

If the principle of harm is a reasonable principle (which can be debated), then a plausible approach would be to use it to sketch out some boundaries. The first rough boundary was just discussed: this is the boundary between what people should express and what people should (morally) not. The second rough boundary begins at the point where other people should be allowed to prevent a person from expressing himself and ends just before the point at which the state has the moral right to use its coercive power to prevent expression.

This area is the domain of interactions between people that does not fall under the authority of the state, yet still permits people to be prevented from expressing their views. To use an obvious example, the workplace is such a domain in which people can be justly prevented from expressing their views without the state being involved. To use a specific example, the administrators of my university have the right to prevent me from expressing certain things—even if doing so would not fall under the domain of the state. To use another example, a group of friends would have the right, among themselves, to ban someone from their group for saying racist, mean and spiteful things to one of their number. As a final example, a blog administrator would have the right to ban a troll from her site, even though the troll should not be subject to the coercive power of the state.

The third boundary is the point at which the state can justly use its coercive power to prevent a person from engaging in expression. As with the other boundaries, this would be set (roughly) by the degree of harm that the expression would cause others. There are many easy and obvious example where the state would act rightly in imposing on a person: threats of murder, damaging slander, incitements to violence against the innocent, and similar such unquestionably harmful expressions.

Matters do, of course, get complicated rather quickly. Consider, for example, a person who does not call for the murder of cartoonists who mock Muhammad but tweets his approval when they are killed. While this would certainly seem to be something a person should not do (though this could be debated), it is not clear that it crosses the boundary that would allow the state to justly prevent the person from expressing this view. If the approval does not create sufficient harm, then it would seem to not warrant coercive action against the person by the state.

As another example, consider the expression of racist views via social media. While people should not say such things (and would be justly subject to the consequences), as long as they do not engage in actual threats, then it would seem that the state does not have the right to silence the person. This is because the expression of racist views (without threats) would not seem to generate enough harm to warrant state coercion. Naturally, it could justify action on the part of the person’s employer, friends and associates: he might be fired and shunned.

As a third example, consider a person who mocks the dominant or even official religion of the state. While the rulers of such states usually think they have the right to silence such an infidel, it is not clear that this would create enough unjust harm to warrant silencing the person. Being an American, I think that it would not—but I believe in both freedom of religion and the freedom to mock religion.  There is, of course, the matter of the concern that such mockery would provoke others to harm the mocker, thus warranting the state to stop the person—for her own protection. However, the fact that people will act wrongly in response to expressions would not seem to warrant coercing the person into silence.

In general, I favor erring on the side of freedom: unless the state can show that silencing expression is needed to prevent a real and unjust harm, the state does not have the moral right to silence expression.

I have merely sketched out a general outline of this matter and have presented three rough boundaries in regards to what people should say and what they should be allowed to say. Much more work would be needed to develop a full and proper account.


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Please support Alexander Aan

You can sign this important petition over here on the White House’s site. I’m surprised to see that it has only about 7,000 signatures, and will lapse at this rate. It needs a total of 25,000 signatures in the next week for anything to happen.

The petition:

Earlier this year, Indonesian civil servant Alexander Aan posted on Facebook that he doubted the existence of God. He was then attacked and beaten by an angry mob, and arrested for blasphemy.

On June 14, Aan was convicted of “disseminating information aimed at inciting religious hatred or hostility,” sentenced to 30 months in prison, and saddled with a large fine. Now many Indonesians are calling for his death.

By punishing Aan, Indonesia is violating its obligations to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees every person the rights to freedom of belief and expression. We petition the Obama administration to call upon the Indonesian government to immediately release Alexander Aan and improve its protections for religious dissidents and nonbelievers.

We can all get behind this, can’t we? Regardless of any other religious, ideological, or philosophical differences. This is about as fundamental an issue of freedom of speech, thought, and belief as we’ll find anywhere.

Alexander Aan case

Just briefly, I care enough about this case to have joined the letter-writing campaign … and it’s possible that you will, too. If you want to know more, go here (a post on my personal blog, which I won’t repeat in full) – and follow the further link, where you can write a letter in whatever terms you see fit.

This is about the guy who is in jail in Indonesia for expressing his atheist views, and criticising Muhammad, on Facebook.

Disclosure. Deception. Duplicity. Defamation.

Here in Australia there is an interesting debate going on around the views of Melinda Tankard Reist (“MTR”), a high-profile anti-abortion and anti-pornography activist, and Jennifer Wilson, a relatively obscure (at least until now) blogger and occasional online op.ed writer. The dispute blew up in public when Wilson received some kind of letter of demand, with a threat of defamation action, from MTR’s lawyers over some highly critical comments on Wilson’s blog.

The comments included claims to the effect that MTR is driven by conservative theological views that merit our opposition, and that she is duplicitous and deceptive in not disclosing her religious motivation. Rather, Wilson alleged, she seeks to create a false impression that she is associated with the secular feminist movement. These claims were expressed somewhat more colourfully and the attack on conservative Christian views of women and sexuality was detailed. If you want to follow the brouhaha that was triggered by the action taken to date by MTR’s lawyers, a good place to start is over on Twitter, where you can search for the hashtag #MTRsues. This will lead you to many tweets, blog posts, and articles in the mainstream press – all commenting on aspects of the dispute.

My own disclosure: generally I am sympathetic to Wilson. I don’t think this was an appropriate occasion to invoke defamation law; I am concerned about the way defamation law can chill public debate on matters of policy; and I am especially worried about the opportunities for public figures, who usually have sources of funds for legal action available to them, to bully bloggers, who may be in no position to defend themselves in the civil courts – legal costs are enough to put most ordinary people’s life savings at risk and possibly ruin them financially. I’d like to see defamation law progressively tightened as far as possible, and to be restricted to rather egregious cases. If the matter ever goes as far as defamation proceedings being issued, I’ll be contributing some small sum towards Wilson’s costs and I’ll see if I can help in any other way. This is not because I know Wilson or have any particular bias towards her as an individual – before the dispute blew up a week or so back, I’d never even heard of her! It is squarely because of concerns about freedom of speech.

Other issues include the content of the word “feminist” and its cognates. In particular, can you be a feminist while opposing abortion rights? That raises a deeper issue of what feminism actually is, something that might be rather difficult to be sure about by now, with so many different feminisms having proliferated. There’s been much back-and-forth about this.

But for the purposes of this post, I want to focus briefly on another aspect – that of disclosure. Here, I’m not so sure that I agree with what Wilson has to say, or at least with all of it (though I defend to the death, or at least to a degree of personal inconvenience, her right to say it, etc., etc.).

To what extent do participants in public debate about government policy come under a duty to disclose such things as their comprehensive worldviews? Prior to the #MTRsues dispute, I would probably have said, perhaps unthinkingly, “Not at all.” My reasoning is that all we can really demand of each other is that we each put aside religious (and perhaps some other) justifications of the policies we propose. We should offer secular reasons for them – e.g. we might argue that homosexual conduct ought to be banned because it causes some kind of secular harm (and there is then a question as to whether it must be a harm to non-consenting third parties); however, it should not cut any ice with public officials if we argue that homosexual conduct should be banned because it is disliked by God, or because it is an impediment to spiritual salvation, or because it “just is” morally wrong. These latter are, as it’s sometimes put, not publicly accessible reasons. I prefer to say that they are not worldly reasons, and that worldly reasons are the ones that should motivate officials in the secular government.

However, I would have said, you are entitled to be motivated privately by such reasons as “homosexual conduct is disliked by God”, as long as you don’t propose this as a reason for the legislators. If you are prepared to enter into public debate on the basis that your publicly accessible reasons will be scrutinised on their merits, and that you will not fall back on your private reasons if the publicly accessible ones prove to be weak, then you don’t even need to reveal the private ones. Indeed, it may be better in some ways if you don’t.

I still think this is about right in an ideal world, but I now wonder how practical it is in the messy world that we actually live in. Perhaps we do get to insist that our publicly expressed and accessible reasons be assessed and debated on their merits if we have been rather purist about putting only those reasons. However, activists such as MTR tend not to be purist in that way.

I don’t know a great deal about MTR herself, and the following is not about her in particular. But, as a generalisation, political activists use all sorts of rhetorical and other methods to win people over to their various causes. This can include associating themselves with others who may be well regarded by the public, or key sections of the public; cultivating a public image, including an image of being trustworthy to the public (or key sections); attacking opponents for having biases, impure motives, etc. The list goes on. My question now is, “At least once you start campaigning in this more robustly political way, as opposed to arguing positions in a more abstract and intellectual way, how far are you entitled to keep quiet about things that would change the public perception of you – things such as any unstated motivations that you might have, your comprehensive worldview, etc.?”

It looks to me as if we should demand at least some level of disclosure from the more “robust” types of high-profile political activists (though not, perhaps, from academics, for example, if they take a more “purist” approach such as described above). I don’t have a strong or dogmatic opinion on this, but I do suspect that my view before the #MTRsues dispute made me think about it was a bit naive. What d’ya reckon?

Telling People to Shut Up

A little while ago I started to write a book for Continuum called, Identity Crisis: Against Multiculturalism. Its basic thesis is – or would have been – that the sort of multiculturalism practised in the UK is misguided and dangerous because it inevitably exacerbates the all too human tendency to divide the world into “people like us” and “people like them”.

I say “would have been” because it is now very unlikely I’m going to complete it. There are a number of reasons for my (almost a) decision to abandon the project, but the main one has to do with the rise of the EDL in the UK. Basically, I think the emergence of the EDL has changed the moral calculus here: it is one thing to write a book that is critical of multiculturalism when multiculturalism is getting a free pass, it is quite a different thing to write such a book when minority groups are under systematic and concerted attack by a bunch of racist, football hooligans. Of course, this is a judgement call, and I can quite see how somebody else might come to a different determination: a reasonable person could easily think that I’m wrong to abandon the project for this reason.

Okay, so why is this of any interest? Well, imagine a world in which I’m a blogger at Socialist Unity (okay, that’s a stretch even for a thought experiment), and in this world “Jeremy” has decided to go ahead with the book. In this situation, if I found out about “Jeremy’s” decision, would I be justified in publicly urging him not to write the book (assuming I agree with the real-world Jeremy that the book is a bad idea in the current political climate)? In other words, if I thought he wasn’t helping in going after multiculturalism, would I be justified in telling him to shut up?

My view is that it isn’t at all clear that I wouldn’t be justified. It doesn’t seem implausible to think that any justification of a speech act has to take into account its perlocutionary effects (which is part of the reason why this whole tone troll meme is so absurd). It would seem to follow from this that if there were reasonable grounds for supposing that some particular speech act – or a book length variant – is likely to have bad effects, then I have a prima facie moral reason at least for urging silence. This is pretty obvious stuff: if I know that somebody is about to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre, and I think a stampede will likely be the result, then I am surely justified in urging the person to keep their trap shut.

Obviously there is complexity here. There are freedom of speech implications, for example: so, for instance, if one takes the naive act utilitarian view that every speech act must be justified by its particular consequences, then an individual or group can shut down all criticism just by making the consequences of such criticism sufficiently bad. And, of course, there are also complications to do with the absence of perfect knowledge: we can’t know with certainty what the outcome of any particular speech act is likely to be, etc.

But, in a way, the complexity is precisely the point. Reasonable people can disagree in good faith about the wisdom of writing a book, employing a particular rhetorical style, or articulating a particular speech act. They can do a proper moral calculus, and come to a different conclusion. They can be attentive to the same evidence, worry about the same moral issues, and come to a different determination.

If one accepts this point, how should one react if somebody else suggests that perhaps one ought not to write a book, or that one ought to tone down some rhetoric, or go easy with some criticism?

Well, at least one answer, which in my more pious moments I’m inclined to favour, is that one should ask whether their request – or even demand – has any merit. Are their concerns legitimate – can you see what they’re worrying about? Is their position held in good faith (since even if you think they’re mistaken, this is a relevant datum in terms of how one should view their character, etc)? Does their position have at least some evidential merit? In other words, one should react in a spirit of rational enquiry – after all, it’s possible they’ve got a point, and it’s possible that a lot is riding on getting things right.

How one should not react is simply to assume that they are beyond the moral pale because they make the request or demand. Sometimes, shutting up is the best option. And sometimes telling people to shut up is morally justified (and perhaps even obligated).