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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, March 12, 2012

Jonathan Turley on freedom of speech

A solid op.ed. by Jonathan Turley in the LA Times, defending freedom of speech - and especially freedom to satirise religion. There can be debate about specific examples in the article, and I do discuss a range of possible situations in other writings. I am not a free speech absolutist, and I doubt that many people are. (I spoke to someone the other night in Buffalo who claimed to be an absolutist about freedom of speech, but he thought this was consistent with having a right to sue if someone spread lies that he was a pedophile ... almost everyone is prepared to admit some restrictions on speech.)

But overall, Turley is surely in the right here. Free speech is under attack from many sides (here, yet again, is one of them in the Australian context), and we need to stand up and be counted in its defence.

In January, the French parliament passed a law making it a crime to question the Armenian genocide. The law was struck down by the Constitutional Council, but supporters have vowed to introduce a new law to punish deniers. When accused of pandering to Armenian voters, the bill's author responded, "That's democracy."

Perhaps, but it is not liberty. Most democratic constitutions strive not to allow the majority to simply dictate conditions and speech for everyone — the very definition of what the framers of the U.S. Constitution called tyranny of the majority. It was this tendency that led John Adams to warn: "Democracy … soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide."
H/T Tim Kolanko


March Hare said...

There is not necessarily a conflict between 'absolute' free speech and an ability to sue.

The US 2nd Amendment gives an almost* absolute right to bear arms, but those arms still cost money. And indiscriminate use of those arms, even on one's own property, can lead to a lawsuit for damages/harm. Likewise, a right to free speech could exist and yet be subject to suits for damages. Depends on your definition of 'absolute', and probably 'free' I guess.

Russell Blackford said...

If certain forms of speech are unlawful (as defamation is) then that is surely a legal limitation on what you can say. Conceptually, it's like any other tortious act. It's not like an advertiser having to buy space in a newspaper (or wherever), which may cost money but is a perfectly lawful activity.