Three Monkeys, Three Typewriters, Two Days

April 6, 2014

Speech and consequences

I've seen the phrase "freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences" a lot recently. This is clearly true. However, it's also clearly true that freedom of speech does in fact mean freedom from some consequences. As a simple example, the First Amendment to the US Constitution and its associated jurisprudence is all about delineating some consequences one must be free of for speech to be considered free.

The question then becomes this: which consequences should one be free of when speaking? I am not a lawyer, and this is not a legal analysis (though some of these consequences are pretty clearly illegal in their own right, though not readily actionable if performed anonymously), but rather a moral one. I would consider at least the following consequences that involve private action only as unacceptable restraints on freedom of speech:

  1. Physical violence against the speaker or their family, friends, or associates.
  2. Threats of such physical violence. This most definitely includes death threats.
  3. Destruction of or damage to the property of the speaker or their family, friends, or associates.
  4. Harassment (bullhorns in the night, incessant phone calls, etc) of the family, friends, or associates of the speaker. I don't feel as absolutely about the speaker him/herself, because the definition of "harassment" is rather vague. While the above examples with bullhorns and phones seem morally repugnant to me as applied to the speaker, there may be other things that I consider harassment but others consider OK as a response to a speaker. There's a lot more gray area here than in items 1-3.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list; these are the things that came to mind off the top of my head.

It's clear to me that a large number of people out there disagree with me at least about item 2 and item 4 of the list above in practice. They may or may not perform such actions themselves, but they will certainly excuse such actions on the part of others by claiming that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. For these particular consequences, I do not accept that argument, and I sincerely hope the people involved are simply unaware of the actions they're excusing, instead of actively believing that the consequences listed above are compatible with the exercise of free speech.

Posted by bzbarsky at 4:39 PM