Some Thoughts on Free Speech

20May10

These are some common-sense ideas that I took the time to write as they seem to be called into question in the controversial discussions surrounding events like “Blasphemy Day” and “Draw Muhammed Day” (which today–5/20–has been unofficially dubbed)—events organized to offend people to remind them that free speech protects offensive speech. However, it is my opinion that events like these fail to account for a hugely important aspect of free speech: responsibility for what you speak.

1) Freedom from censorship, not consequence. Speech may be free from censorship, but that doesn’t mean that we are without responsibility regarding what we speak. Speaking recklessly still has consequences. To restate, “free speech” refers to speech which is free from censorship, not consequence. You may have the right to speak offensively, but you should understand that, free or not, offensive speech still has consequences.

2) Self-censorship is protected by, not in violation of, free speech. Just because our “right to free speech” protects provocative and offensive speech doesn’t mean we are required to speak as offensively as possible in the name of free speech. The same free speech that protects your right to make offensive statements also protects my right to abstain from making those same statements. The right to free speech encompasses the right to be respectful speech—just because I don’t speak offensively for the sake of offending doesn’t mean I’m an opponent of free speech, it just means that I am responsible to speak provocatively only when it is necessary and unavoidable.

3) Responsibility. Points 1 and 2 can be tied together with this term. Free speech (and other freedoms) entail responsibility. I have the right to speak freely, but I have the responsibility (social, ethical, and moral) to speak constructively. And when any responsibility is not met, there are consequences—this is to be expected. This is an important part of the social contract and moral mandates.

So in conclusion, yes, you have the right to offend the Muslim community today insofar as free speech goes, but that same freedom also makes you responsible for the consequences that come from your destructiveness. Were you really concerned for free speech, I think you would find a more creative and constructive way to find it. Using hate and offensiveness is rather lazy and destructive, moreover, it will do more harm for your supposed cause than good.

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