"Shouting fire in a crowded theater" – Freedom of Speech

Nigel Warburton published Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction this month.

With coincidental timing, last week the Home Office refused Geert Wilders entrance into the UK. Wilders is a member of the Dutch Parliament and famous for his anti-Islamic zealousness.
“I despise what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” – Voltaire
This quote of a commitment to free speech is at the heart of a civilised and tolerant democratic society. Free speech encourages participation in political debate not passive acceptance of policy, handed down from the law-makers. It encourages individual contribution.

However, what of the dangerous consequences of expression where other factors are more important than free speech? i.e. national security, risk to children, pornography, hate speech. Should the government employ censorship?

If censorship becomes regulated by law, will censorship encroach creativity? History is beset with instances of book burning in order to save the masses from corruption. Expression of ideas has been a catalyst for threats of torture and persecution. Would censorship replace democracy with totalitarianism?

While Wilders is well-known for his noisy right-wing opinions, some believe that by refusing him entrance into the UK has been unintentionally good for democracy. Instead of nodding and sighing in comfortable inertia, ideas to which we disagree invigorate and stimulate opinion and action. John Stuart Mill holds the opinion that disagreements arising from freedom of speech regenerates an otherwise plodding existence.

Should freedom of speech be the uncontested right of all citizens in a democracy? Or should freedom of speech be tempered with censorship of the kind Oliver Wendell Holmes indicates when there is “clear and present danger”, i.e. shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.
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2 thoughts on “"Shouting fire in a crowded theater" – Freedom of Speech

  1. Those interested may wish to examine the idea that the ideal of ‘freedom of speech’ is a rather idealistic, posturing unreality that no-one REALLY believes in as much as they might like to think they do.< HREF="http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008/oct/01/civilliberties" REL="nofollow">http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008/oct/01/civilliberties<>is a good start maybe – but best to readStanley Fish’s: <>There’s no such thing as free speech and it’s a good thing too <> maybe at < HREF="http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=79020514" REL="nofollow">http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=79020514<>– you may have to take a free trial to read thearticle – but thought-provoking stuff…The article begins:“Free speech” is just the name we give toverbal behavior that serves the substantive agendas we wish to advance; and we give our preferred verbal behaviors that name when we can., when we have the power to do so, because in the rhetoric of American life, the label “free speech” is the one you want your favorites to wear. Free speech, in short, is not an independent value but a political prize, and if that prize has been captured by a politics opposed to yours, it can no longer be in­voked in ways that further your purposes, for it is now an obstacle to those purposes. This is something that the liberal left has yet to understand, and what follows is an attempt to pry its members loose from a vocabulary that may now be a disservice to them.<>maybe you can see where he’s going with this…?<>

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  2. The argument against ‘freedom of speech’ immediately goes to a slippery argument that equates freedom of speech with offense against religion, gender, law (paedophilia) not just offense of what people have a right to be offended against. We should have a right to speak up for what we believe is wrong socially and politically, despite the discomfort the politicians may feel. Good, let them be accountable by people as representatives of the people. Let them be offended when they are questioned and challenged. However, I do understand the argument that ‘freedom of speech’ as a right often modifies to a ‘release’ or excuse for indefensible behaviour, i.e. racism, religious hatred. This of course is not ‘free speech’ at all. It is cloaked hatred dressed as a right or virtue, as in the excuse ‘I’m only being honest ..’ or ‘I’m just exercising the first amendment’. Racism poised and presented as ‘free speech’ is a non sequitur argument, an incorrect causal relation. Also racism presented as ‘free speech’ is highly emotive, nobody wants to be considered ‘racist’, and once the two are linked, the issue of free speech becomes anathema. When offensive behaviour is tagged as ‘free speech’, it needs to be decided whether the motivation is from hatred or from genuine dissatisfaction with the status quo. Freedom of speech needs to be addressed separately from emotional zealousness. Freedom of speech needs to be seen as an opportunity to have a say that may offend social and political systems in protest. Otherwise we will all become nodding, unquestioning, boring, colourless stumps

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