Some ramblings on free speech…pardon the lack of a cohesive statement. Today I’m thinking about the potency of the tongue, the desire of those who seek to censor it as a political power move, the double speak going on with regards to who should have free speech and who shouldn’t. This is not an academic piece of writing, so please, keep the lawyers away.
Inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech, The Four Freedoms, dated January 6, 1941, Norman Rockwell (who I wrote about here) painted a series of freedom paintings, the first of which was The Freedom of Speech. Here is that segment of FDR’s speech mentioning the four freedoms:
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.
I think it no coincidence that freedom of speech and expression is at the top of his list. Certainly, with Hitler’s tyranny against the slightest criticism and silencing of all forms of expression but Naziism, and with WWII then raging, Roosevelt saw a need to aggressively defend this particular freedom.
The Guardian UK published an interesting timeline of the history of free speech a few years ago. Here are a few dates that caught my eye:
399BC Socrates speaks to jury at his trial: ‘If you offered to let me off this time on condition I am not any longer to speak my mind… I should say to you, “Men of Athens, I shall obey the Gods rather than you.”‘
1516 The Education of a Christian Prince by Erasmus. ‘In a free state, tongues too should be free.’
1770 Voltaire writes in a letter: ‘Monsieur l’abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.’
1859 ‘On Liberty’, an essay by the philosopher John Stuart Mill, argues for toleration and individuality. ‘If any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.’
1929 Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, of the US Supreme Court, outlines his belief in free speech: ‘The principle of free thought is not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought we hate.’
1989 Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issues a fatwa against Salman Rushdie over the ‘blasphemous’ content of his novel, The Satanic Verses. The fatwa is lifted in 1998.
1992 In Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky points out: ‘Goebbels was in favour of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re in favour of free speech, then you’re in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.’
Hate crimes, also known as bias motivated crimes, occur when the victim is targeted because of his membership in a certain group – racial, religious, gender, age, etc. I’m thinking of the lynching of African-Americans, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, the Holocaust.
History of hate crimes legislation: The federal hate crimes statute (18 U.S.C. § 245) was originally created to protect civil rights workers in the 1960s. There were serious issues of violence regarding African-Americans enrolling in public schools, enjoying public establishments, travel issues, and more. This statute deals with racial, ethnic, national origin, and religious bias, and does not include sexual orientation. However, almost all states have much broader hate crimes legislation that does include sexual orientation.
The hype today is hate crime legislation targeting anti-gay sentiment. As far as assaults on gay people or destruction of property, or other violence toward homosexuals, there are already laws in place to deal with these crimes. So why is legislation being considered that criminalizes one’s moral or religious opposition to homosexuality? This clearly conflicts with the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech. If someone is inciting others to violence with their speech, this is another issue, but anything less than that is simply criminalizing one’s thoughts. Is this America?
The expression of moral judgment is the right of a free person in a free society, whether one agrees with it or not. There are community standards and a consensus that help guide social mores, and clearly, there is not consensus on the homosexual issue.
In 2007 the House passed HR 1592 before it was put away by the Senate. This was an attempt at expanding federal hate crime legislation and will be back. I like what Congressman Ron Paul had to say about HR 1592 (emphasis mine):
May 7, 2007
Last week, the House of Representatives acted with disdain for the Constitution and individual liberty by passing HR 1592, a bill creating new federal programs to combat so-called “hate crimes.” The legislation defines a hate crime as an act of violence committed against an individual because of the victim’s race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. Federal hate crime laws violate the Tenth Amendment’s limitations on federal power. Hate crime laws may also violate the First Amendment guaranteed freedom of speech and religion by criminalizing speech federal bureaucrats define as “hateful.”
There is no evidence that local governments are failing to apprehend and prosecute criminals motivated by prejudice, in comparison to the apprehension and conviction rates of other crimes. Therefore, new hate crime laws will not significantly reduce crime. Instead of increasing the effectiveness of law enforcement, hate crime laws undermine equal justice under the law by requiring law enforcement and judicial system officers to give priority to investigating and prosecuting hate crimes. Of course, all decent people should condemn criminal acts motivated by prejudice. But why should an assault victim be treated by the legal system as a second-class citizen because his assailant was motivated by greed instead of hate?
HR 1592, like all hate crime laws, imposes a longer sentence on a criminal motivated by hate than on someone who commits the same crime with a different motivation. Increasing sentences because of motivation goes beyond criminalizing acts; it makes it a crime to think certain thoughts. Criminalizing even the vilest hateful thoughts–as opposed to willful criminal acts–is inconsistent with a free society.
HR 1592 could lead to federal censorship of religious or political speech on the grounds that the speech incites hate. Hate crime laws have been used to silence free speech and even the free exercise of religion. For example, a Pennsylvania hate crime law has been used to prosecute peaceful religious demonstrators on the grounds that their public Bible readings could incite violence. One of HR 1592’s supporters admitted that this legislation could allow the government to silence a preacher if one of the preacher’s parishioners commits a hate crime. More evidence that hate crime laws lead to censorship came recently when one member of Congress suggested that the Federal Communications Commission ban hate speech from the airwaves.
Hate crime laws not only violate the First Amendment, they also violate the Tenth Amendment. Under the United States Constitution, there are only three federal crimes: piracy, treason, and counterfeiting. All other criminal matters are left to the individual states. Any federal legislation dealing with criminal matters not related to these three issues usurps state authority over criminal law and takes a step toward turning the states into mere administrative units of the federal government.
Because federal hate crime laws criminalize thoughts, they are incompatible with a free society. Fortunately, President Bush has pledged to veto HR 1592. Of course, I would vote to uphold the president’s veto.
Have you ever wondered recently why Dr. Dobson won’t support John McCain for President? It’s partly because of the federal legislation that John McCain (R-AZ) pushed through in 2002, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, known as the McCain-Feingold Act. It basically restricted political free speech by placing new regulations on the financing of political campaigns – both in how much money can be raised and how and when groups can place political ads. For example, the Act requires advocacy groups to name their financial donors if they run ads within 60 days of a general election or within 30 days of a primary, if those ads were targeting candidates. In effect the McCain-Feingold Act limited the ability of groups like Focus on the Family to contact constituents about upcoming legislation.
George Will commented on it last November:
It was in 2002, when Congress was putting the final blemishes on the McCain-Feingold law that regulates and rations political speech by controlling the financing of it. The law’s ostensible purpose is to combat corruption or the appearance thereof. But by restricting the quantity and regulating the content and timing of political speech, the law serves incumbents, who are better known than most challengers, more able to raise money and uniquely able to use aspects of their offices — franked mail, legislative initiatives, C-SPAN, news conferences — for self-promotion.
And did you notice how House Speaker Pelosi exercised her free speech to call President Bush a “total failure” yesterday (inciting and fueling hatred of America?), yet Pelosi referred to conservative talk-radio as “hate” radio and wants to bring back the Fairness Doctrine (effectively censors conservative opinion on TV and radio).
It’s only “hateful” speech if it’s anything under the sun the liberals disagree with; otherwise it’s “fairness.” Apparently only liberals/Muslims/gays/anybody-but-conservative-Christians deserve free speech (and deserve to hate).
Are you disturbed about infringements on free speech?