Tag Archives: Freedom of speech - Page 2

Is Spending Speech?

West face of the United States Supreme Court b...

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A while back the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that campaign finance spending limits violates free speech. This ruling seems to rest on two key assumptions. The first is that corporations are persons and are thus entitled to free speech. The second is that spending is a form of free speech and that it should not be limited.

In regards to corporations being persons in regards to free speech, this would seem (as I have argued elsewhere) to entail that they must be treated as persons across the board. This, as I have argued, would seem to lead to absurdities that thus expose the absurdity of treating them as persons in this regard. Naturally, there can be good reasons for allowing collective rights-but these do not require that the entity be regarded as a person but merely as a collection of people.

Also, there is the obvious concern that granting corporations rights is unfair because it gives groups an extra advantage over an equal number of unincorporated individuals. For example, if a corporation has 500 members, they can make 500 contributions to a candidate and also another contribution as the corporation. 500 individuals can make 500 contributions, but they do not get that extra corporate contribution. To use an analogy, imagine a store is having a special in which each person gets a free item (like a small ice cream cone). If three individuals go to the store, they each get the item. But, if there are three people who form a corporation, they would get three items plus a fourth for the corporate person. That seems rather unfair. As such, taking corporations as people seems to be a system of miraculous multiplication-it creates extra super-people out of a collection of normal people. This seems both questionable and unfair.

In regards to spending being free speech, that seems slightly dubious. Suppose that spending money for political purposes is considered speech. Now, it is clearly acceptable to try to persuade a politician by speaking to him or her. If spending is speech, then I should be able to try to persuade  politicians by speaking to them with money. However, this sort of thing already has a name, specifically bribery. But, if spending is a form of free speech, it would seem that bribery should be acceptable as a form of free speech. This seems absurd, to say the least.

It might be countered that the contributions cannot be direct bribes in that there can be no direct giving of money in return for specific actions or promises to act. However, it would be extremely naive to believe that campaign financing is not intended to do just that-namely to influence behavior by providing money and support.

However, suppose that spending is taken as a form of speech and thus protected by the right of free expression. It does not, of course, follow that such speech should be free of limits. After all, limits are justly placed on speech in other cases. The stock example is the yelling of “fire” in a crowded theater in which there is no fire. In the case of unlimited spending by corporations, this does serious harm to the political process by increasing the influence of corporations far beyond the number of people who make them up and thus proportionally decreasing the influence of those who are not in control of corporations. To use an analogy, it is on par with having a public discussion in which the people controlling corporations are allowed to use sound systems up on the stage and individuals are expected to try to shout out their views  from the crowd.

As might be imagined, I believe that it is a mistake to allow corporations such unlimited spending.

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Freedom of (Angry) Expression

After the terrible shootings in Arizona, some folks rushed to use the spilled blood as fuel in their political machines. Some hurried to blame the right, especially Sarah Palin and her infamous map of “surveyor symbols.” Others leaped to place the blame on the left.

Among the more reasonable folks and experts the consensus arose that the shooter was motivated by neither the right nor the left. Rather, he seemed to have made his choice under the influence of his own troubled mental states. As such, the blame seems to rest (as it should) primarily on the person who pulled the trigger. This incident did, of course, raise legitimate concerns about various relevant issues such as whether or not more laws should be created in the hopes of preventing another incident like this one.

Some people do, of course, want to pass laws against  speech containing violent rhetoric and images that are suggestive of violence-at least when these are directed at politicians.  The hope is, naturally enough,  that such laws will help prevent future incidents.

Those who traffic in angry rhetoric were quick to angrily denounce such proposals as violating their right to free expression. While I am not in agreement with the angry rhetoric, I do agree that such laws would tend to violate that right. I also contend that such new laws are neither needed nor desirable.

One reason to not add new laws is the obvious fact that actual threats of violence are already against the law. As such, there does not seem to be a compelling need to add new laws to make illegal what is already illegal.

However, some of the suggestions involve laws that go beyond outlawing actual threats. The idea seems to be that new laws should cover vaguely threatening rhetoric and suggestive images.

While this might have some appeal, to expand the laws to restrict expression that might merely be seen as vaguely threatening or suggestive of violence (like cross hairs on a map) would seem to infringe too far into the freedom of expression without adequate justification. After all, restricting the freedom of expression requires justifying that restriction-typically on the basis of harm or potential harm. Something that merely seems threatening or suggestive does not seem to be harmful enough to warrant such a restriction.

These two points could be combined into something of a dilemma: if an act of expression is an actual threat, then it is already covered by existing laws and hence no new law is needed. If an act of expression cannot be classified as an actual threat, then it would seem to be protected by the freedom of expression and hence no new law is needed. Thus, there would seem to be no need for new laws in this area.

There is also the practical concern that laws vague enough to cover what is vaguely threatening or suggestive of violence could easily be misused by politicians against their opponents and critics. This would, as some have said, have a chilling effect on free speech.

In light of these reasons, it would seem that no new restrictions on expression should be made into laws. This, oddly enough, puts me in agreement with folks who want to continue to use angry and violent political rhetoric. However, I do disagree with them in a key way.

While I do agree that people should be free to spew hateful rhetoric that does not cross over into actual threats and incitements to violence, I also believe that people should tone down the violent rhetoric and the anger. At the very least, people should consider whether their anger is proportional to reality. Political discussion and the general good are not well served by vitriol. They are not aided by disproportionate anger. They are not enhanced by rage. While we do have disagreements, we should remember that we are not blood enemies and that we can discuss our differences in a rational way, free of allusions to violence. Before sputtering in rage, we should think of those people lying dead on the tar and temper our words. After all, their blood shows us the true fruits of hatred and rage.

My point is, of course, that there is an important distinction between what people should be allowed to express and what they should choose to express. To use an analogy, there should be no law that forbids spouses from referring to each other as “whore”, “sh@thead” and so on. However, spouses really should not use such language with each other. Likewise for the angry rhetoric-people have the right to use it, but they should really consider not doing so.

Virtual Violence & Children

World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King
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While there is more than enough real violence in the world, the Supreme Court of the United States is turning its attention to a law suit regarding California’s law that regulates the sale of violent video games to minors.

Being a gamer, I am well aware of the sort of extremely violent content of certain video games. I am also aware that games, like movies, come with a rating that makes it fairly clear as to what sort of content the game features. However, the age based rating system does not actually prevent younger people from buying the game. So, for example, a nine year old could walk into a game store and walk out with a video game rated for mature (17+) audiences and then spend the rest of the day killing virtual hookers and stealing virtual cars. Assuming, of course, that he was allowed to do so by his parent(s) or guardian. Not surprisingly, this possibility does raise some legitimate concerns.

The focal point of the conflict is between free expression and the notion that the state should protect children from possible harm.

On the side of freedom of expression, the concern is that imposing restrictions based on the content of video games would be a form a state censorship and thus an imposition on the legitimate rights of game makers and their customers. Since there are very good arguments for freedom of expression and freedom of consumption (as usual, I defer to Mill here), the case against restricting the sale of violent video games to minors seems to be rather strong.

Of course, those who favor such restrictions can also make a strong case. After all, there are legitimate concerns that violent video games can influence the behavior of children and have other negative consequences. Perhaps the strongest foundation for banning such sales is that children are generally regarded as lacking the same rights as adults when it comes to consuming potentially harmful products. To use some obvious examples, children cannot legally purchase tobacco, alcohol or pornography. If violent video games fall into the category of being harmful and suitable only for adults, the arguments against allowing children to buy smokes, booze and porn can thus be employed against violent video games. In general, a reasonable case can be made that children should be subject to more restrictions than adults-even Mill takes this view. At the very least, children are far less capable of making rational decisions and tend to be more vulnerable than adults (of course, adults can be irrational and vulnerable as well).

One obvious concern is that if censorship is permitted on the basis of violence (something Plato would agree with) then this opens the door to more restrictions. For example, I am looking at the warning label on Wrath of the Lich King and it warns me that in addition to blood and gore the game features suggestive themes and the use of alcohol. Perhaps the next step will be to limit games that have such content. Then the next step might be to restrict movies or even books that mention such things. This is not, of course, a slippery slope argument. Rather, it is a matter of precedent: if the sale of video games can be restricted based on content, then this would seem to extend logically to other media, such as books.

Of course, video games do differ from other media in that they are interactive and this might entail that they have a stronger influence on children. So, for example, being the one to virtually run over hookers in a stolen  car would have more impact than merely reading about a person running over hookers. Or seeing a story on the news about people being killed for real. Or living in a violent world. This interactivity might provide the basis for a relevant difference argument and a way to prevent (if desired) a slide from video games to other media (such as books).

Another avenue that the video game censors have gone down is that of pornography. As noted above, minors cannot legally buy porn. If it is right to ban the sale of porn to kids, then the arguments for this can probably be modified to argue against allowing kids to buy violent video games. Not surprisingly, Plato argues for banning material relating to both violence and lust. His argument, oversimplified a bit, is based on the corrupting influences of such material. Of course, Plato argued for a comprehensive ban and not just a restriction on selling to minors. This does lead to the obvious question: if something is too harmful to sell to children, then might it not be too harmful for adults as well? Of course, the usual counters are that adults should have the liberty to harm themselves (as per Mill) and that adults are better able to resist the nefarious influence of such things (or that it is okay for adults because they are adults).

I am somewhat divided on this issue. On the one hand, I am for freedom of expression and consumption. Hence, my general principle is to oppose such censorship/restriction on the basis of liberty (availing myself of Mill’s arguments). On the other hand, having played video games such as the  Grand Theft Auto games I am aware that some games feature content that strikes  me as inappropriate for kids. For example, a friend once asked me if she should get Grand Theft Auto III for her son. Without hesitation,  I said “no.” My reasoning was that a young kid lacks the intellectual and emotional development needed to confront such violent and sexual content. I did see the irony in this: a person should be mature before playing what might seem like a morally immature game. However, I believe that I gave the right advice and would follow the same approach if I had kids of my own. Not surprisingly, things change a bit when one switches from rights in the abstract to what, for example, your own child will be playing.

There is, however, still the question of what the state should do. After all, there is a distinction between what I would suggest to my friends who have kids and what I would want to be a matter of law. For example, I think that kids should not eat junk food all the time, but I would be against a law banning the sale of junk food to kids. Rather, this is something that the parents (or guardians) should handle. While junk food is not healthy, the danger it poses is not so immediate that the compulsive power of the state is required. Rather, this seems best suited for parental control. In short, the burden of proof rests on those who would extend the power of the state.

In the case of video games, I take a similar view. While I do recognize that video games can (like junk food) things that are not so good, they do not seem to present a clear an immediate health threat that requires the imposition of the compulsive power of the state. Rather, this is a matter that seems to be more suited for parental control.

It might be replied that some children do not have adequate supervision and hence might just buy violent video games and play them. However, I am inclined to be more concerned that the children lack such supervision than with them playing a violent video game. In fact, if that is the worst they do, then things could be far worse.

It might also be argued that children would simply buy such games and play them without their parents being aware of it. Hence, making the sale of such video games illegal would provide an extra barrier between the kids and the content of the games. While this does have some appeal, kids can easily bypass this. After all, if they have their own money to buy video games, they can buy them online or get someone else to buy them. As such, the protection value of such a ban would seem to be rather minimal if the parents are, in effect, unable to supervise their children.

As such, I hold that the sale of such video games should not be restricted by law. However, I do think that making the nature of the content clear so that parents (and others) can make informed choices is a good idea. I also hold that parents should male responsible choices about what games their kids play. Of course, what counts as a responsible choice is a matter for another time.

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Funerals, Freedom, and God Hates Fags

The Westboro Baptist Church picketing at the m...

Fred Phelps, best known for “protesting” at military funerals by alleging that God is killing soldiers because He “hates fags”, is involved in a case that will be heard by the United States supreme court. A few years ago, Albert Snyder sued Phelp’s church for its “protest” at his son’s funeral and won a $5 million settlement. This verdict was recently reversed on the grounds of the First Amendment. While the legal issue will be hashed out by the supreme court, the ethics of the situation are philosophically interesting.

As I have argued in other blogs, it seems reasonable to accept that people have the right to freedom of expression. While I am not a committed utilitarian, I think that Mill makes an excellent case for this freedom in his work on liberty. Allowing free expression certainly does seem to consistently create more good than harm, and this seems to justify accepting it as a general moral guide (with some notable exceptions).

Of course, it also seems reasonable to accept that people have a right to privacy. This includes not just a right to not be infringed upon by the state, but also the right to not be intruded on by other private individuals. As with the right of expression, this right can be argued for on utilitarian grounds. It can also be argued on other grounds, but I will not go into such arguments.

The case involving Phelps is a case in which these two freedoms or rights clash. The general moral problem here involves sorting out which right or freedom trumps the other and the specific problem is whether or not  the right of free expression of the “protesters” outweighs the right to privacy of the people involved with the funerals.

My initial thought, prior to deep reflection, is that the “protesters” do have the right to engage in their activity, provided that they remain on public ground and do not actually interfere with the funeral by disrupting the event itself. However, my initial thought is that they should not be doing such a thing, because it is cruel and insulting. As such, I think people should have a right to say mean and hateful things but that they should not exercise that right.

Upon reflection, I found that I came to the same results.  As part of the process I considered the various grounds on which a person’s freedom of expression can be justly limited. While this is rather oversimplified,  the general principle  is based on the principle of harm: unless the expression can be shown to create a significant and unwarranted harm, then the expression should be allowed. This is what justifies denying people the right to shout “fire” in crowded theaters and the right to engage in slander.

Of course, it could be argued that Phelps and his cohorts are actually causing emotional harm and this justifies silencing them. I can imagine what it would be like trying to bury a son, daughter or parent while hate filled people are screeching such horrible things. I would be outraged at their insensitivity and appalled at the wickedness in their souls. I would be deeply hurt that my loved one was laid to rest to the sounds of foul mouthed vultures cursing and carrying on in their mad rage. I would want them to fall silent and leave, preferably after being tased.

However, considering the matter in the light of calm reason, I must argue that we have no right to silence these “protesters.” The fact their words and actions offend, even deeply and profoundly, is not adequate grounds for silencing them. After all, adopting the principle that people have no right to expression that others find offensive would restrict the freedom of expression in a very harmful way. To use but one example, some people find the idea that women are entitled to equal rights to be deeply offensive to their religious values. However, it would not be right to restrict people from saying such things. Roughly put, we have no right to not be offended.

That said, I still hold that although they have the right to express such ideas, they should not do so. Doing such things at a funeral is disrespectful and insulting to the dead and those who care about them. It is, to say the least, a wicked action. But, it is also one that should be tolerated.

Of course, this does not mean that there should not be restrictions placed on such “protests.” After all, those at the funeral have a right to not have their somber moment sullied by such “protests.” As a practical matter, they should be required to be out of sight and sound of the funeral ceremony. This does not interfere with their right to express their ideas-after all, they do not actually need to disrupt the funeral in order to express their views. After all, we have no right to needlessly annoy people.

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Deleting Comments & Free Expression

Image via Wikipedia

One task that blog moderators face is deciding whether to delete certain comments. In some cases, the decision is easy and obvious. Deleting spam, for example, requires no real thought. This is because spammers have no more more right to expect their spam to remain than the folks who stick flyers on my truck have the right to expect me to drive around with that flyer in place so people can see it. Web droppings (those irrelevant and often vulgar one or two sentence comments like “i lkes boobies”) can also be swept away without thought, just as you would think nothing about washing random “comments” left by passing birds on your windshield.

Where the decision making becomes more challenging is when comments are relevant to the topic (or at least interesting), contain some significant content but also have some serious issues.  Of course, what counts as a serious issue depends a great deal on the nature of the blog and other specifics of the context. To keep the discussion focused, I will confine my attention to blogs (such as this one) that are dedicated to rational, civil discussions. In this context, two main problem areas are tone/style and content. In regards to tone/style, a comment that is hateful, condescending, or insulting in tone is rather problematic. In regards to content, hateful, obscene, racist, sexist or other such material would also potentially be problematic.

There are many practical reasons to delete such comments. To keep the discussion concise, I will just present two.

First, they can easily drive away other readers who are not interested in reading such things. To use an analogy, allowing such comments to remain is like allowing rowdy, violent and hateful customers to remain in a typical store. Even if they are customers, they will tend to drive away well behaved customers who just want to shop. Likewise, allowing such comments can drive away those who are interested in the blog’s topics but not in being insulted or treated with contempt. The basic idea is that any value added by such comments will be outweighed by the value lost when others are driven away.

Second, such comments can be damaging to a blog’s reputation and the experience it offers. To use an analogy, a business that wishes to appear professional works hard to maintain that appearance (and reality). Allowing such comments on a site is a bit like allowing people to urinate on the business floor, harass other customers, and so forth. As such, it seems sensible to delete such comments. This is because any value gained from such comments will be outweighed by the damage done to the blog.

Of course, these are practical reasons. Since this is a philosophy blog it might be expected that more than merely practical concerns should be in play. To be specific, it might be argued that the right to free expression entails that even the “bad” comments should not be deleted.  Naturally, a reasonable person will agree that the comments should have at least some merit in order to be so protected.

While I do accept the idea of right to the freedom of expression, I also accept that deleting comments is consistent with this freedom. Naturally, I need to defend this position.

When people think of a right, they tend to conflate two types of rights: negative and positive. Having a negative right (which many refer to as a freedom) means (in general) that others do not have the right to prevent you from exercising that right. However, they are under no obligation to enable you to be able to act on that right or provide the means. To use a concrete example, the right to higher education in the United States is a negative right. No one has the right to deny a qualified person from attending college. However, the student has to secure entry to a college and must also be able to provide the money needed to stay enrolled. Having a positive right (which many refer to as an entitlement) means that the person is entitled to what the right promises. To use a concrete example, the right to public education at the K-12 level in the United States is a positive right: students are provided with this education for “free” (that is, it is paid for by taxes).

In the case of the right to freedom of expression, it seems that it is a negative right. That is, others do not have (in general) the right to prevent people from expressing their ideas. Obviously enough, there are limits to this (as the classic yelling “fire” in a crowded theater example shows). It is not a positive right because others are not obligated to provide people with the means to express themselves.

To use an analogy, the freedom of expression seems comparable to the freedom to travel. While a free nation allows its citizens to travel about within the nation as they wish (within limits) and I have no right to stop people from such travels (except under certain conditions-such as when they want to “travel” into my house), I have no obligation to give someone a ride just because he wants to go to California. It is up to him to get his way there.

Likewise, while I have no right to try to censor or delete another person’s blog (under normal conditions) I also have no obligation to allow them to use my blog as a vehicle of their communication.  As such, if someone wishes to write things that I (or another moderator) do not wish to have on my site, it is no violation of the other person’s rights to delete it.

As far as me (or a moderator) having the right to delete comments, this seems to be a clear matter of property rights. Just as I have the right to remove and discard (almost) anything that other people stick on my truck or house, I also have the right to delete comments on my blog.

That said, in my own case I am careful in exercising this right. I do not delete comments merely because they are critical or express views I disagree with. On my own personal blog, I even tolerate the (rare) insult-provided that the comment also has relevant and significant content.  When I am posting on a site owned by someone else, my policy is to abide by their rules. If I find their deletions unacceptable, I have the option of not posting there anymore.

Naturally, more should be said about what would justify deleting a comment and I will endeavor to do so in the near future.

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Burning Books & Building Mosques

Front of the Quran
Image via Wikipedia

9/11 marks the anniversary of the most destructive terrorist attack on America.  While this date is often marked with solemn events in memory of the dead, a pastor in my adopted state of Florida (I’m from Maine) has planned to hold a Quaran burning on this day. Oddly enough, he has also claimed that only the radicals would be against burning the Quran.

Government and military officials in the United States have tried to encourage the pastor to cancel his event. The main reasons are that this action will harm America’s relationship with Muslims and that it will put American forces in danger. Of course, the officials do agree that the pastor has the right to take this action on the basis of the right to free expression.

Not surprisingly, the people who are opposed to the mosque that is supposed to be constructed near ground zero were quick to argue that the two situations are analogous. The gist of the analogy is that while people have a right to build a mosque near ground zero (just as they have a right to burn the Quran), they should not do so (just as people should not burn the Quran).  This does have a certain appeal. After all, if the fact that burning the Quran will antagonize Muslims means that it should not be burned, then it would seem to also be the case that the mosque should not be built because it will antagonize people. Some might even go so far as to say that the mosque should not be built so as to avoid violence against Muslims (just as the Quran should not be burned to avoid an increase in violence against American soldiers).

Perhaps the two situations are analogous and both fall under a single principle: actions should not be taken that will damage relations and lead to increased violence. In the case of burning the Quran, this would certainly seem to damage relations with Muslims and also incite some Muslims to seek vengeance by attacking people (most likely those who have no significant connection to those burning the books). In the case of the mosque, its construction will damage relations between some Americans and Muslims and might well lead to violence against Muslims. As such, if the Quran should not be burned, then the mosque should not be built near ground zero (and vice versa).

Of course, accepting a principle that we should be, in effect, hostage to those who are willing to engage in violence in response to what they do not like does not seem very appealing (whether the violence is in response to a book burning or a mosque building).

However, perhaps the two situations are different in a key way that breaks the analogy. In both cases, people are (or will be) very angry. In both cases, people wish to act on the basis of established freedoms (religion in one case, expression in the other). However, there seems to be an important distinction between building a mosque and burning the Quran. To be specific, building the mosque does not seem to be intended as an insult against the victims of 9/11 (some of whom were Muslim). After all, the Pentagon has a non-denominational chapel (dedicated to those killed at the Pentagon and on the plane that hit it) where Muslims hold prayer services and this was never taken as an insult. As such, it seems odd to take the mosque as an intentional insult against those who feel insulted. In contrast, burning the Quran as part of a 9/11 event can really only be taken as an insult and an attack on the faith. It would also be especially insulting to the Muslims who were murdered in the attack.

It might be replied that the builders of the mosque secretly intend to insult those who are insulted by its construction. However, this claim would seem to be based on equally secret evidence. Obviously enough, the fact that some people feel insulted by it hardly counts as evidence for such an intention on the part of those who plan to build the mosque. Until evidence of such intent is forthcoming, it seems reasonable to accept that the builders did not intend to insult anyone.

There is also the question of who the mosque is supposed to be insulting. After all, it probably cannot be an insult against the Muslims who were murdered by their fellow Muslims. It also cannot be an insult against the victims who believed in freedom of religion. Overall, it seems mainly to be an insult against those who see themselves as insulted by it. However, they seem to have little right to be insulted by this mosque.

Thus, there seems to be a possible relevant difference between the two situations. In the case of the mosque, those behind the project seem to have no intent to insult anyone and these seems to be no clearly defined victim of the alleged insult, other than those who see themselves as insulted. In the case of the book burning, that seems to involve a clear intent to attack the faith and it seems reasonable for people to consider such an action as an insult and an attack. This does not, however, mean that they would be justified in responding with violence.

To use another analogy, the mosque situation seems to be like a case in which someone is rationally talking about a subject that some might take issue with (such as arguing for or against same sex marriage) and the Quran burning situation seems to be like a white person repeatedly saying the N-word to African Americans. While both are covered by the freedom expression, it is unreasonable to take offense with the first situation but quite reasonable to take offense in the second. It also seems reasonable to think that people should not say racist things, even though they have the right to do so.

If this line of reasoning is plausible, then the mosque should be allowed while the Pastor should not engage in his book burning (despite having the right to do so).

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