A Philosopher's Blog

Free Speech, Coulter & Violence

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 26, 2017
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Ann Coulter’s appearance at the Berkeley was cancelled in response to threats made by anarchist groups. While some conservatives argue that concerns about security should often trump concerns about rights (such as infringing on religious liberty or privacy to “make us safer”), two conservative organizations have started a lawsuit against the university. The claim that the school is endeavoring “to restrict conservative speech” on campus. Since Berkeley is a public school, the First Amendment does apply and hence the case can make an appeal to this constitutional right. While well-paid lawyers will hash out the legal matters, this does raise an interesting moral concern.

As I have shown in numerous other essays, I hold to a view of freedom of expression that goes far beyond the limited legal protection laid out in the First Amendment. I also hold to the freedom of consumption—that people have a right to, for example, hear whatever views they wish to hear. As such, Coulter has a right to express herself and the student organizations have the right to invite her so they can listen to whatever wicked or foolish things she might elect to spew forth.

Like many classic liberals, my go-to justification of these liberties is based on J.S. Mill’s arguments. The gist is that allowing people the liberty of expression and the liberty of consumption creates more happiness than restricting these liberties. Being a fan of natural rights, I also find the idea that these rights have additional grounding beyond mere utility appealing. I do, however, admit that such rights are certainly metaphysically suspect and difficult to properly ground in reality. In short, while I think that Coulter will say nothing worth hearing, she has every right to speak before the student groups that invited her.

I should note that my view of Coulter is not based on any notion that conservative political theory lacks merit; it is based on my view that she lacks merit. Unfortunately, thoughtful conservative political theorists seem to be out of vogue. This is unfortunate; the past saw many excellent conservative thinkers and they made significant contributions to political and philosophical thought. These days, there seem to be mostly just empty pundits spewing emptiness on Fox News. Or, worse, racists and sexists purporting to represent conservative thought. Then again, perhaps abandoning the intellectual aspects of politics was a smart tactical move: the left might have its intellectuals, but the right holds the power in most states. But, back to the matter at hand.

While I do accept the rights of expression and consumption, these rights are not absolute. If the justification for rights and liberties is taken to be utilitarian, then these rights can be limited on the same grounds. As such, if the harm created by allowing the freedoms of expression and consumption would create more harm, then they can be justly limited. The stock example is, of course, the restriction on people yelling “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire.

If a natural rights view is accepted, the restriction of a right can be justified by appealing to other rights. In the case of speech, the right to life would warrant preventing people from yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. The challenge is, of course, working out a hierarchy of rights. However, it does seem reasonable to make the right to life a rather important right, if only because being alive is generally a necessary condition for the other rights.

If having a person speak could put that person and others in danger, then this can justify postponing a speech until proper security arrangements can be made or even cancelling it if such arrangements cannot be made. This can be done by appealing to a utilitarian justification or by arguing that the right not to be harmed trumps the rights of free expression and free consumption. This is analogous to other cases in which liberty must be weighed against safety.

This does lead to the obvious concern that free expression and free consumption could thus be thwarted simply by threatening violence; thus giving individuals and groups willing to make threats considerable powers of censorship. One limiting factor is that making such threats is a crime. Unfortunately, the internet provides so many anonymous ways of making threats that the police face considerable challenge in dealing with them.

Deciding how to respond to credible threats of violence requires weighing the rights of expression and consumption against the harms that are likely to arise. As a general principle, it seems reasonable to accept that a speech should be postponed in the face of a credible threat that cannot be addressed in time. Such a credible threat should be dealt with by law enforcement and then the speech can be made. If the threat can be addressed so that an acceptable level of public safety is possible (within the available budget), then the speech should proceed normally. This approach can be easily justified on utilitarian grounds: people are kept reasonably safe while at the same time threats are prevented from becoming an effective tool of censorship. This does require that the state take such threats seriously and take appropriate action.

There is, of course, also the moral responsibility of those who make such threats: they are wrong to do this. If they do not like, for example, Coulter’s views, they should ask a campus group to invite them to speak out against her views on campus.

 

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8 Responses

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  1. Peter B. Giblett said, on April 27, 2017 at 11:01 am

    There is all too much thought these days about suppressing the views of people whose views are not seen as acceptable. This has been a trend that I have watched with horror over the past quarter of a century. Generally it has been my philosophy that if I don’t like the views a person holds, I will not go to a speech and listen to them. It is of course wrong to make threats.

  2. WTP said, on April 30, 2017 at 8:35 pm

    he lie we were told as kids was this: The end of American liberty would come at the hands of the political right.

    Conservatives would take away our right to speak our minds, and use the power of government to silence dissent. The right would intimidate our teachers and professors, and coerce the young.

    And then, with the universities in thrall, with control of the apparatus of the state (and the education bureaucracy), the right would have dominion over a once-free people.

    Some of us were taught this in school. Others, who couldn’t be bothered to read books, were fed a cartoon version of the diabolical conservative in endless movies and TV shows. The most entertaining of these were science fiction, sometimes with vague references to men in brown shirts and black boots goose-stepping in some future time.

    Women would become handmaids, subjugated and turned into breeders. And men would be broken as well. The more lurid fantasies offered armies of Luddites in hooded robes, hunting down subversives for the greater good.

    But the lie is obvious now, isn’t it?

    Because it is not conservatives who coerced today’s young people or made them afraid of ideas that challenge them. Conservatives did not shame people into silence, or send thugs out on college campuses to beat down those who wanted to speak.

    The left did all that.

    It’s there in front of you, the thuggish mobs of the left killing free speech at American universities. The thugs call themselves antifas, for anti-fascists.

    They beat people up and break things and set fires and intimidate. These are not anti-fascists. These are fascists. This is what fascists do.

    Some liberals also have seen their careers ruined by mob rule. Those two professors at Yale, a husband and wife, come to mind. She told Yale students not to worry if some other student wore a sombrero as a Halloween costume, that there were more important things to worry about than political correctness and a student wearing a sombrero.

    But a Yale student, a woman, a minority, screamed in response, weeping in hideous self-indulgent theatrics captured on video. And all of this caught fire on the internet and sparked the virtual mob on social media. The professors, the husband and wife, with decent records and obvious care for the intellectual development of their students, were shamed out of Yale.

    And all educators across the country took note.

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/columnists/kass/ct-free-speech-kass-0430-20170428-column.html

  3. TJB said, on May 3, 2017 at 5:33 pm

    Mike, check this out if you have a chance. It’s about a philosophy professor:

    http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/05/transracialism-article-controversy.html

    I’m curious what you think.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 4, 2017 at 4:11 pm

      I’ll need to read the original; but the arguments seem reasonable. If race and gender are social constructs and people can select their gender identity, then an argument by analogy would support that claim that people should be able to select their racial identity.

      • ronster12012 said, on May 7, 2017 at 10:52 pm

        Michael

        If race and gender are indeed ‘constructs’ as you suggest then obviously concepts like ‘equality'(male female, black /white, etc ) are even more obviously just social constructs,no? And if they are just social constructs that are just made up then how much attention should be paid to them?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 12, 2017 at 6:34 pm

          Made up things can be very important. For example, political and legal systems are also social constructs, yet we should probably pay attention to them.

    • ronster12012 said, on May 15, 2017 at 10:45 am

      TJ
      I just got around to reading the article and I must say that it was rather amusing….retards attacking retards, like an all in fight at the loony bin. And these people are out and walking the streets I presume?

      One point that seems to be either missed or ignored is that while a person can identify as whatever they like, there is no obligation for anyone else to actually agree with that identification. For example, Bruce Jenner is just a mentally ill man who had his dick cut off, not a woman. Rachel Dalziel is just a mentally ill white woman who lives a fantasy life as a black. So a question could be should we facilitate this mental illness by indulging them or should we be honest about what we see? Do we have a right to see the world with our own eyes or should we call black white because someone will be offended if black remains black to us?

      So if I identify as a Ferrari, or better still a Bugatti Veyron, and others refuse to recognise me as that, am I entitled to be offended and can I have them arrested for a hate crime…..and if not then why not?

      • TJB said, on May 15, 2017 at 8:42 pm

        And you are down the rabbit hole with Alice…


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