The dogmatic adherence to the principle of free speech is in practice, taken to a point of absurdity. It is free speech that allows me to tell you that the great and famous philosopher and writer Voltaire was recorded to have said, ‘I disapprove of what you say but I would defend to my death your right to say it. In reality I doubt Voltaire would defend my right to tell you this as it is misinformation. The quote is actually one from The Friends of Voltaire written in 1906 by Evelyn Beatrice Hall. The context was not that Voltaire ever said it but that he held it as a state of mind at one particular time. Evelyn later identified her inspiration for saying this as being the phrase, ‘Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.’ Whether this itself is fully accurate can also be questioned though the most legitimate sources I have uncovered include the Bibliotheque municipale de Lyon, which in turn quotes pages from the University of York. The phrase Voltaire offered which became her inspiration certainly does exist and it does not seem to suggest that he has any belief in the war of who has the loudest voice that is currently being conducted in his name.
Whilst Voltaire certainly did defend the right to expression of ideas it is unlikely that he would advocate the kind of dogmatism that has developed around this principle in the modern day. As a man of thought, he would have wished that people put thought into every principle by which they live their lives. Dogmatism is the very thing that took the beautiful sentiments offered by the world’s religions and subverted them in favour of enacting their most egregious and disruptive principles. If Voltaire were here today and he were to say, “Monsieur l’abbe, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write” as he did in 1770 on the 6th of February in a letter to Monsieur Le Riche, I think had Monsieur le Riche written back saying, “You’re an idiot, IDIOT IDIOT IDIOT. Voltaire is a divvy spanner. Spacko Pillock.” Voltaire might have thought twice about his previously expressed sentiment.
Most people will agree when pressed that free speech must have limits. In the States where free speech is most stringently protected by the First Amendment to the constitution a legal precedent was famously set by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in the case of Schenk v the United States, that consideration should be given to the use of the words and whether they were designed to bring about evils against which the government had a right to act. Holmes complained at later times that this principle was abused to convict people for speech that should have been protected, which shows that it is a minefield picking through legal principles and precedents. This instance concerned the limit of the principle where a possibility of criminal conviction was possible. It might be questioned whether a positivist legal principle stands against absolute morality but an example offered by Holmes being that a person should not be protected for shouting ‘Fire’ in a crowded theatre shows that where very direct negative reactions may be caused speech can cross a line into becoming a form of weaponry or disruption.
A similar example might be the use of free speech to shout abuse in the ears of a child until their hearing is damaged. Anyone who would consider this acceptable would find objection from almost everyone. If someone tried doing this in a supermarket I would hope that they very quickly found democratic opinion was against them. A line will be perceived, by anyone who does not blindly hold dogmatically to the principle without thought, that there must be a point at which speech stops being protectable and starts to become problematic. Unfortunately the line is by its nature very broad. Opinions will be divided in many cases. Slipknot played 24 hours per day at full volume to break down the will of prisoners would probably be considered as something which could not be protected. Sadly at one point at least, the objectors did not include the people charged with keeping the prisoners. Leaving a 12 hour youtube video playing in the bedroom repeatedly chanting ‘badger badger badger badger mushroom mushroom’ before popping out to visit friends is far less offensive but your wife will no doubt consider it to be a serious abuse of free speech soon after you have left the house.
There are limits. What those limits are may need to be looked at individually and based upon the merits of each separate instance but those limits do exist and they can not simply be defended against by offering a mis-attributed quote purported to have been said by Voltaire. Even if Voltaire had said it, it would still not be absolute. It would need to be considered according to the context. In some quarters there is a tendency to abuse free speech in orgion expressivism that could almost be considered a weapon because it demoralises and terrorises the opponents of the speaker. If there is an area where it can be most greatly defended it is in calm and measured political debate. The instances in which the dogmatic protection of free speech should not be considered acceptable must obviously include obfuscatory marketing ploys designed to trick money out of people who are struggling to get by, surely it includes uses of speech that make people fear for their safety, libel and slander are already covered by law, as is conspiracy or the promotion of terrorism.
There are of course instances in which the law does make a stand but it should not be considered by civilians that where the law doesn’t intervene free speech is therefore sacrosanct. The lesser cousin to crime is the tort. Torts are offenses against people and property that the law does not consider to offend against the public as a whole but the individuals involved; libel and slander are two examples of this area. They have already been covered by the law but law moves at a glacial pace and simply because someone’s speech has not yet been covered does not mean that it falls under the dogmatic umbrella of free speech. There are moral standards that must be evaluated and re-evaluated constantly. Even if Voltaire was the dogmatic defender of our rights to offend and upset each other that people seem to think he was, he had no experience of Twitter, blogging, or the internet. As an intelligent and thoughtful philosopher he would certainly have re-evaluated such principles in the modern era. Considering the mis-attribution of the quote it is apparent that we should not need to wait for permission before exercising our own critical abilities.
Posted on November 21, 2014, in Law, Media, Philosophy, Politics and tagged debate, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, Free Speech, law, media, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Philosophy, politics, press, Schenk v United States, Voltaire. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.