Free speech Über Alles!

By Razib Khan | September 29, 2012 2:45 am

Will Saletan has has published a piece making a traditionalist American absolutist case for free speech. He points out that in most Western nations there are in fact curbs on speech which is considered offensive, disturbing, and perhaps dangerous. Therefore, Muslims who point to Western hypocrisy have a point. I agree with this argument without reservation. But, I do want to reiterate the putative targets of offense are illustrative of a divergence of values in and of themselves. Though I wouldn’t criticize non-Western Muslims for pointing out the existence of laws banning denial of the Holocaust, I do have issues when Western Muslims bring this point up even innocuously. The reason is simple: the Holocaust concerns the systematic state-sponsored murder of millions of human beings. This is a far more serious issue than the reputation of the prophet Muhammad. Of course that statement reflects my particular values. And, whether you accept the idea of hate speech or not I suspect most Westerners would accept the validity of this proposition.

More generally a major thread running through conflicts about speech is globalization and technology. Today communication and propagation is nearly frictionless, and government curbs on speech either have to be very robust (e.g., Saudi Arabia or China), or, they have to be nominal and selective. The great thing about American free speech absolutism is that the implementation is relatively easy and clear. The problem with speech laws in other nations is that it seems that they are enforced sporadically and at the pleasure of the authorities. This may seem coherent in nations with heavy censorship, but it seems peculiar and out of place in those nations where censorship in the exception and not the rule.


Comments (29)

  1. RedZenGenoist

    You’re applying inconsistent standards to free speech, depending on whether you think issues have merit.

    If you’re really in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you think have no merit. Otherwise, you’re not in favor of free speech.

  2. Eurologist


    I like your entry much except for:

    I agree with this argument without reservation

    As I have mentioned before, I disagree on this, completely. Many western nations simply do not word this as you state. For example, in Germany and several adjacent countries, free speech is limited when it causes significant public unrest, or has the potential to do so. The latter is of course very problematic for a variety of reasons, but conversely its ambiguity and clearly wrong slant has also made it an almost non-existent tool.

  3. Al Cibiades

    Our own Chief Justice of the Supreme Court stated that there are occasions when the use of “free speech” may cause harm – the famous shouting fire in a crowded theater is a demonstration of one of his points. We ignore this in favor of an absolutist rule of “law” – which itself is a protean reflection of the men who frame the words, and the culture and times in which they are formed.
    Interestingly, the case being examined for the rights and ramifications of “free speech” was the arrest of a Socialist who believed that drafting young men into WWI was an abridgement of liberty and an extension of fascism. His right to distribute literature requesting that draftees should not submit to intimidation and resist the draft was later found to be BEYOND the safety of free speech, and he was convicted – as it “presented a clear and present danger”!….

  4. candid_observer

    It’s fair enough to say that the current laws in the West are far less restrictive than those favored by most Muslims. Yet it’s also worth noting that the reach of proposed “hate speech” laws could easily be as restrictive. Indeed, in some implementations of such proposed legislation, they might cover exactly the sort of speech Muslims themselves want banned. If Muslims declare themselves deeply offended by a given cartoon or movie or other act of speech, on what grounds can a law generally prohibiting hate speech allow it? Unless that law is itself carefully worded, the “offense” engendered by the speech could easily trigger its application.

    I would say in general that a number of people in the West who advocate for hate speech laws are put in an awkward spot already with regard to the video that has incited riots across the Arab world. It’s very hard, I should think, for them to come up with good reasons for excluding this video from being banned under their proposed laws, yet including it seems to put them on the side of the barbarians.

  5. Dwight E. Howell

    I’m coming to see free speech in the US as coming down to this. It’s not acceptable to say anything that might offend Muslims because they may kill somebody but otherwise the PC crowd are strong defenders of the right to denigrate religious groups.

    The PC crowd would claim they don’t want people to be offensive but as someone who’s a bit of an outsider it looks to me more like they are afraid and whistling in the dark about it. If they actually cared about not being offensive the crucifix in the urine thing would not be on display. Since it is they obviously could care less about being offensive to anyone that doesn’t object violently to being “disrespected”.

    It is obvious that groups that engage in barbaric behavior are being rewarded for so doing by being respected and groups that act civilized are being disrespected for doing so.

  6. RK

    #3 — What the heck? Justice Holmes — author of the “crowded theater” line — was never Chief Justice. The “clear and present danger” test articulated in that case was overturned by the modern line of First Amendment cases in the 60’s and 70’s. And Schenck’s leaflets said nothing about fascism, which in 1917 wasn’t the general-purpose term of abuse it is today — it had just begun to be used as a self-description by Mussolini’s followers a couple of years before.

  7. ackbark

    Trying to say that differences in laws or applications of rights between different countries are examples of ‘Western hypocrisy’ is simply puerile.

    Free speech is limited by it’s encroachment on other freedoms, as are all rights.

    In Germany Holocaust denialism is banned because of the extraordinary circumstances of state complicity and the continued presence of many who participated who inevitably would try to limit and deny their guilt or pass blame onto someone else.

    4. ‘Offended’ isn’t the same thing as mass murder. ‘Offended’ is trivial.

  8. candid_observer

    Actually, it’s very useful to consider some of the examples Saletan himself brings up of “hate speech” already forbidden by law in some European countries:

    What have these laws produced? Look at the convictions upheld or accepted by the European Court of Human Rights. Four Swedes who distributed leaflets that called homosexuality “deviant” and “morally destructive” and blamed it for AIDS. An Englishman who displayed in his window a 9/11 poster proclaiming, “Islam out of Britain.” A Turk who published two letters from readers angry at the government’s treatment of Kurds. A Frenchman who wrote an article disputing the plausibility of poison gas technology at a Nazi concentration camp.

    Look at the defendants rescued by the court. A Dane “convicted of aiding and abetting the dissemination of racist remarks” for making a documentary in which three people “made abusive and derogatory remarks about immigrants and ethnic groups.” A man “convicted of openly inciting the population to hatred” in Turkey by “criticizing secular and democratic principles and openly calling for the introduction of Sharia law.” Another Turkish resident “convicted of disseminating propaganda” after he “criticized the United States’ intervention in Iraq and the solitary confinement of the leader of a terrorist organization.” Two Frenchmen who wrote a newspaper article that “portrayed Marshal Pétain in a favorable light, drawing a veil over his policy of collaboration with the Nazi regime.”

    Much of this goes well beyond serious concerns about the Holocaust per se.

  9. Jon Bb

    It is not difficult to resolve that one’s purpose for writing or filming a subject is inflammatory in nature. If it is determined to have no other obvious purpose then it should be possible to hold the author(s) responsible for the willful dissemination of the material in question.
    This is what the offended crowd would have us believe. Now, how do we model this belief for any possible future violations ? How are we to tell what is not now so objectionable and that which in the future will fall outside of the margins of acceptance. I do not think it is possible to tell and there fore any restrictions this nature would be pure folly. When men or women produce opinions so objectionable the remedy is never acceptable if it is worse than that which it is objecting to…..and any one with have a brain could figure that out.

  10. BDoyle

    “American free speech absolutism” does not mean the authorities are not down for some selective enforcement of their own when it suits them. “Mark” Bassely Nakoula is sitting in jail right now for making that naughty film about Mohammed. The technical reason is that he violated his probation by lying to Federal investigators when they questioned him about his involvement in the film (not for using the internet, as has been reported), but anybody who thinks this is anything but a convenient pretext is being naive.

  11. Al Cibiades

    RK – Thank you for the clarifications. However, the point of my comment was that the Supreme Court of the US ruled that some instances of “free speech” cannot be allowed in a democracy, AND the specific example which was deemed to NOT be justified as an exercise of free speech at the time of the trial, would today be easily supported as a just exercise of free speech.

  12. Luke Raines

    What exactly has been achieved by putting people in jail for Holocaust denial? I’m no historian, but if the Holocaust really happened then the historians should be able to find all the evidence to back it up without putting a single person in jail.

  13. ackbark

    12. Holocaust denial presumes some kind of conspiracy to create ‘the Holocaust’ thereby empowering radical goofballism and those people aren’t going to be impressed with anything a historian might come up with, it’s the same kind of mentality as the Obama birth certificate conspiracy.

    It’s as if to say you have a right to be wrong and all truth is subjective.

  14. Luke Raines

    Truth isn’t subjective but people do have a right to be wrong. This is why we tolerate the diversity of religions that we have in the United States today.

  15. #1, who the hell are you responding to? your comment is coherent, but off topic, except perhaps in your own mind. i get irritated when people do this early on in threads. so keep that in mind.

    4. ‘Offended’ isn’t the same thing as mass murder. ‘Offended’ is trivial.

    this is because of your values. muslims take offense against their religion in the same manner as mass murder. i personally think that’s pretty barbaric, but that’s just how it is. similarly, i dated an evangelical christian for a few weeks in high school who thought that if god sanctioned mass murder, well, it was good because god sanctioned it (she was not a sophisticate, so please don’t assume i’m impugning all evangelicals). i thought it was perverse, but it made sense in her own system of belief.

  16. ackbark


    I don’t understand how ‘true for them’ makes it real. Do not values build up from genuine things? If I shoot someone they will be dead, it won’t matter which country we’re in.

  17. redzengenoist

    #15: I read your “having issues” with Western muslims as meaning that you don’t agree with them bringing up their (inequality of free speech) point.

  18. Wasil ibn Ata


    This American Muslim agrees with you completely. My attitude is this: if denigrating the Prophet is a sin, then surely God will judge those denigrators. Why should any Muslim be concerned that someone is denigrating the Prophet, since they will be judged according to God’s will.

    The United States is a special country in the history of the world. Our Constitutionally mandated respect for freedom of speech is unobserved by most other nations. Only in the US do we allow so-called “hate speech,” and thank God for that. We aren’t so obsessed with inoffense and social cohesion as the nations of Europe, and we are stronger for it. A nation of conformity is stagnant and decrepit. No wonder the countries of western Europe, despite their illustrious past, will soon become bankrupt failing states.

    I think the anger and rage comes more from the fact that most Muslims live under authoritarian governments, and that, for the most part, if dissent were expressed in this riotous way, the rioters would be shot. If, however, they express their anger (at being unemployed, unmarried, etc.) against the US or the West, there is no real problem for the governments. Essentially, using a sort of Islamic nationalism, the governments of the Middle East can deflect attention elsewhere by allowing these protests to take place.


    Do not values build up from genuine things?

    Sure they do. Specifically, they build from the neurons in your head, the way they wire up with each other, and the resulting pattern of stimuli that excite/inhibit the release of various neuromodulators.

    There are certainly some large-scale common trends, implanted by evolution. Murder is usually wrong – except when it isn’t. Same thing for stealing, assault, etc. It’s good to respect others, especially elders, up to a point – but which point?

    While you can identify some similarities in the general thrust of values, due to common raw instincts, it’s all about how you prioritize these raw instincts against each other. The flexibility of human cultures (resulting from the extreme plasticity of human brains) means that the same basic instincts can result in a myriad of very different actual (socially constructed) value systems.

  20. 13. Sure, but jailing people for denying the Holocaust also plays into the hands of anti-Semitic conspiracists, by seeming to demonstrate Jewish power. People don’t believe in conspiracies on rational grounds.

  21. ackbark

    18. I would think only for people given to that in the first place. For everyone else, that’s not the only definition of hate speech.

  22. Talk of absolutism or extremism in relation to free speech seems to me to be a category error. Freedom of speech isn’t a belief system; it’s a liberty, like the freedom to marry or to own property. If your beliefs are attacked only your amour propre is injured. If your liberties are attacked, you are threatened with tangible harm.

  23. Nathaniel

    There’s nothing free about speech.

    Words, like actions, have a price. People need to understand there are consequences for their choice of words, regardless of the content – whether they are defaming others, yelling fire in a movie theatre, or ordering fries “with that”.

    Uncensored speech is a liberty, and one that should be exercised with restraint. It is a privilege that America has taken for granted, and it’s value and merit have suffered for that reason.

  24. April Brown

    I should probably know this (but don’t) – does anybody know if there’s some sort of retribution clause built into Islam so punish the faithful who allow insults to the religion? I’m just wondering if there’s some sort of implied afterlife penalty for Muslims who don’t react aggressively to insults to the Prophet.

  25. @ Nathaniel – like any other liberty, freedom of speech is subject to whatever restrictions the law imposes. The freedom to marry, for instance, is subject to limitations of age, mental capacity and the familial relationship of the parties. Such limitations have been negotiated within the legal structures of particular states. Limitations on your liberty imposed by aggressive external forces are to be resisted.

  26. Karl Zimmerman

    22 –

    I find your attitude kind of odd, because I’m not sure where such an inherent right would come from. Are you a theist?

    Personally, while I do feel that there is a human feeling which could be called “oppression” which has commonalities across most (all?) cultures, and the goal of public policy should be to minimize the feeling, what causes the feeling of oppression to flare up varies dramatically depending upon how “rights” are defined within a society.

    In many places, both in the past and to a lesser extent today, the traditional content of liberty by definition included the oppression of someone else. Slavery within the antebellum U.S. is a great example. Many more modern examples can be given, which would be more controversial. For example, the issue of children – do parents have the right to raise their children however they see fit (minus obvious physical abuse), or are their grounds for the state to intervene on behalf of the kids? In the U.S., we tend to restrict familial interference, but this is not the case elsewhere – for example, Germany bans home schooling.

    Regardless, given I believe that while oppression is a universal, rights are not, the question seems to me to be how do we shape cultural norms to make sure liberty is not defined in such a way as to excessively trample the liberty of others. There’s more than one way to skin this cat – after all, despite having some minor free speech limitations, most of Europe has not declined into dictatorship, any more than the gross influence of money in American politics has allowed politicians with no political skill to buy their way into office (see, Mitt Romney).

  27. 26 @ Karl – I think you’re over-complicating things. It’s not difficult to define a liberty: you can do the thing, nobody is stopping you. If your own legal tradition is stopping you, in certain well defined circumstances, you accept that as the price of living under the rule of law, with all the civilisational benefits that brings. It’s politics, not philosophy. On the other hand, if some other actor is stopping you, you ought to be objecting. You can pretend that you’ve suddenly and spontaneously decided to alter your own legal tradition, but you’re kidding yourself.

  28. Karl Zimmerman

    27 –

    Liberty seems self-evident to you because you are a product of a particular liberal tradition. That does not make liberty some intrinsic, platonic thing. Perhaps it’s a good rule-of-thumb as it’s easy to define as you have laid out, but there may be different conceptions of liberty which are just, if not more, utilitarian.

    As to your second point, about “some other actor” stopping you, this sort of runs contrary to the American conception of rights (I think you might be a Brit judging from your blog, not sure). Rights are only something that the federal government can infringe upon, not private actors. Hence, you have free speech in a public space. You do not have free speech in school, in the workplace, or on an internet message board, because the property rights of the actors on whose premises you speak upon generally speaking outweigh your own free speech rights.

  29. Al Cibiades

    27 & 28 – In US/UK the phrase “the squeaky wheel gets the oil” implies a value on liberty or dissent; standing away from the crowd is not necessarily a bad thing. In Japan, the phrase is: “the nail that sticks up, gets hit down”; I would posit that these distinctions are indicative of a cultural predilection toward the concept of “liberty” – whether it exists in a independent or socially conservative mode.

    Also, of especial relevance to the “concept” of “free speech” is a recent note in the UK Guardian (via Alternet)which is enlightening – and adds water to the already slippery slope:


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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