Tuesday, June 4, 2013

the First Amendment protects private censorship, but opposing free speech is still wrong: a few points from the ACLU, Popehat, Salman Rushdie, and others

Some people claim censorship can only be done by governments. Neither dictionaries nor the American Civil Liberties Union agree. From What Is Censorship?:
Censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are "offensive," happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. Censorship can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups. Censorship by the government is unconstitutional.

In contrast, when private individuals or groups organize boycotts against stores that sell magazines of which they disapprove, their actions are protected by the First Amendment, although they can become dangerous in the extreme. Private pressure groups, not the government, promulgated and enforced the infamous Hollywood blacklists during the McCarthy period.
Some people argue that withdrawing an opportunity to speak is not censorship. Sarah R. Wunsch of the ACLU answered that when a private school, Clark University, canceled a speech by Norman Finkelstein:
…the cancellation of his speech violates the basic principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom which are so fundamental to an institute of higher learning. The existence of an opportunity to speak at another time or in another location does not remedy the wrong of censorship.
Ken White at Popehat makes a point in Free Speech Does Not Include The Right to Be Free of Criticism that applies to would-be private censors who argue that "offensive" speech should not be tolerated:
Often the argument involves portraying speech as violence, as when thin-skinned speakers complain that criticism of their speech is "terrorism" or "abuse", or claim that it is "chilling," thus misappropriating a term used to describe the effect of government restrictions on speech.  To that extent the argument  is related to, but not identical to, the European/Canadian/UN concept that "hate speech" is a violation of the rights of others."
A few of my favorite comments about free speech and censorship:
"What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist." —Salman Rushdie

"What you don't hear from the hate speech theorists is that the first casualty of the MacKinnonite anti-obscenity ruling was a gay and lesbian bookshop in Toronto, which was raided by the police because of a lesbian magazine it carried." —Henry Louis Gates 
"When decorum is repression, the only dignity free men have is to speak out." —Abbie Hoffman

"Political correctness is America's newest form of intolerance, and it's especially pernicious because it comes disguised as tolerance. It presents itself as fairness, yet attempts to restrict and control people's language with strict codes and rigid rules. I'm not sure that's the way to fight discrimination. I'm not sure silencing people or forcing them to alter their speech is the best method for solving problems that go much deeper than speech." —George Carlin 
"In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them." —Alexis de Tocqueville

"...the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate." Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes
If you think free speech is primarily a male concern:

FEMINISTS AGAINST CENSORSHIP: FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS: "Feminists have traditionally been anti-censorship, and the major women's anti-censorship groups in the US and UK are made up of feminists ranging from Betty Friedan and Kate Millett to the members of the old Red Rag collective and the Feminist Review collective."

Feminists For Free Expression: "There is no feminist code about which words and images are dangerous or sexist. Genuine feminism encourages individuals to choose for themselves. A free and vigorous marketplace of ideas is the best guarantee of democratic self-government and a feminist future."

Related: the right to offend is the heart of free speech

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