Further thoughts on Free Speech

Why are Americans (in particular) so attached to free speech, even repugnant free speech? Why is the first item in our Bill of Rights (i.e. the First Amendment to our Constitution) devoted to its protection? Our strong defense of free speech rests largely, in my view, on three beliefs held by most Americans.

The first is that it is our right and our responsibility to decide for ourselves what to read, view or listen to. We turn to ourselves and our families first and to our communities and our government second and third for most things. No one is absolutely self-reliant (even Robinson Crusoe had his man Friday), but Americans have historically been more self-reliant than most any other people. We trust our own judgment more than that of a public morality police. Though we often turn to trusted advisors in our churches or communities for guidance, we choose whose guidance we respect. No one has a stronger interest in our getting it right than we do ourselves. I don’t buy the paternalistic argument of some “do gooders” that the poor or uneducated just don’t care.

The second belief, born of centuries of experience and accumulated evidence, is that government power is always in danger of being corrupted to the service of those in power if not carefully checked and balanced. If government had the power to control what we heard, it would, sooner or later, be abused. If government is able to filter what we see and hear, it will not be able to resist filtering out information inconvenient to or critical of itself.

The third belief is that competition in ideas and information as well as in the provision of goods and services will reward the truth and drive out falsehood. This issue of discovering the truth is complicated. These days anyone can say anything and post it on the Internet. However, it doesn’t generally take long for the truth to crowed out lies (the claims that Ambassador Stevens body had been sodomized or that American Embassy Marine guards did not have live ammunition come to mind). To the extent that we trust the statements of our government it is only because we know that we (and the press) are free to contradict it if we have contrary evidence.

Our strong defense of free speech does not obligate us to defend the content of that speech. The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that “’both the mentality and the organization behind this movie and those perpetrating terrorist actions exploiting Islamic symbols and discourse’ were equally to be condemned.” (The Washington Post “Anti US fury widens in Muslim world” 15/9/2012). Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the offending video “disgusting and reprehensible.” She was right to say so, though I found the film merely pathetic.  We defend the right of the cretins who made this film to make it and to show it where ever they can convince some company or person to do so while also defending our right to denounce it.

This brings us to the “Muslim” reaction to the film. Many Muslims around the world have complained loudly about pictures or films that denigrate Mohammed, as do many Christians when pictures or films denigrate Jesus. That is simply an exercise of free speech. But what about demonstrations at American Embassies? “The right of the people peaceably to assemble,” is merely one of the means of exercising free speech and is also protected by the First Amendment to our Constitution.

Attacking our Embassies and their officials and employees is quite another matter. Muslims are wrong to do this and their governments should not allow it. I hope that you stumbled at my broad brushed attribution of this violence to “Muslims”.  If you didn’t you should have. Muslims did not kill four Americans in Benghazi or set various American properties on fire in several countries. “It is no more accurate to condemn the Muslim world for the atrocities of a relative few than it is to indict America because one lowbrow decides to upload a lousy flick that nobody otherwise would watch or even know about.” (Kathleen Parker, “In Libya and America-imbeciles affecting foreign policy” 14/9/2012.) Individuals did these things, each with their own motives. What drew people to these demonstrations? Who are they and what are their goals? In Benghazi, the murderers may have been al-Qaeda linked. The attacks in Egypt were primarily lead by hard line Islamists groups against the somewhat more tolerant and moderate new government of the Muslim Brotherhood. (David Ignatius, “Cairo and Libya attacks point to radicals jockeying for power” The Washington Post 12/9/2012)

Not everyone in the world understands or accepts our strong commitment to free speech. Our self-interest calls for us to carefully explain to the rest of the world its value and importance for the kind of societies that respect individuals that we want to live in.

Author: Warren Coats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My recent books are One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina; My Travels in the Former Soviet Union; My Travels to Afghanistan; My Travels to Jerusalem; and My Travels to Baghdad. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.

5 thoughts on “Further thoughts on Free Speech”

  1. Warren – I would add one more belief/rationale for promoting free speech. Practicing self-restraint (as an individual and also as a society) in the face of ugly speech that would otherwise inflame passions builds a kind of character that is essential to a system that lets people pursue their own visions of the good life. If two people can each tolerate the speech of the other that they find most objectionable, both win because each one has gained some space to be from the other. But if either one buckles in disapproval and tries to silence the other, they both lose. So it’s like a prisoner’s dilemma of intellectual freedom.

  2. Excellent read, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing a little research on that. And he actually bought me lunch since I found it for him smile So let me rephrase that: Thank you for lunch!

  3. We should ask three questions according to Fish: “[g]iven that it is speech, what does it do, do we want it to be done, and is more to be gained or lost by moving to curtail it?” (1994, 127). He suggests that the answers we arrive at will vary according to the context. Free speech will be more limited in the military, where the underlying value is hierarchy and authority, than it will be at a university where one of the main values is the expression of ideas. Even on campus, there will be different levels of appropriate speech. Spouting off at the fountain in the center of campus should be less regulated than what a professor can say during a lecture. It might well be acceptable for me to spend an hour of my time explaining to passers-by why Manchester United is such a great football team but it would be completely inappropriate (and open to censure) to do the same thing when I am supposed to be giving a lecture on Thomas Hobbes. A campus is not simply a “free speech forum but a workplace where people have contractual obligations, assigned duties, pedagogical and administrative responsibilities” (1994,129). Almost all places in which we interact are governed by underlying values and speech will have to fit in with these principles: “[r]egulation of free speech is a defining feature of everyday life” (Fish, 1994,129). Thinking of speech in this way removes a lot of the mystique. Whether we should ban hate speech is just another problem along the lines of whether we should allow university professors to talk about football in lectures.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: