Rights and ResponsibilitiesDavid Bernstein of the Volokh conspiracy has linked to an interview he did on NPR recently on the subject of Danish cartoons. Bernstein’s interview along with the interview of a journalist, who quite after his newspaper refused to reprint the cartoons, brings up two interrelated points for me. First, I tend to agree with Bernstein that as a formal legal matter, banning “hate speech” is probably a bad idea. And second, I tend to think the arguments we have about free speech and journalism confuse responsibility and right.
First, Bernstein makes the argument that our relatively recent and fragile legal consensus on a quite strong protections of freedom of speech might be under attack in a few years, as legal scholars are moving away from that consensus, particularly on the subject of “hate speech.” I am somewhat sympathetic to this argument. Certainly, I would consider it no great loss if Klan members or neo-Nazis find it difficult to brandish slurs and idiocy in public. After all, such speech tends to do very little for any kind of intelligent discourse on the subject, and promotes violence. One might argue (though I think this is stretching things a bit) that “hate speech” itself is violent.
Ultimately, however I find myself agreeing with Mill’s defense of strong liberty through skepticism. How am I to trust someone to mark the difference between “hate speech” that is worthless and “hate speech” which might be worthwhile? For example, as an atheist I worry that many arguments made by (fairly tactless) atheists might seem just as ‘hateful” to Christians as the Klan seems to me. Legal speech restrictions seem to me to be something best avoided as much as possible, lest we mistake our own prejudices for objectivity.
My second point comes largely from the journalist. In listening to him, I have no idea why he thinks I should be upset with the decision of newspapers not to reprint the cartoons. Apparently the newspaper he worked for was of the opinions that 1) the cartoons were offensive and likely to incite violence, 2) that a description of the cartoons were all that was necessary for an adequate discussion of them, and that 3) in any event the cartoons were easily available for anyone who was interested in the internet. The journalist argues pretty persuasively against 3, but as far as I can tell 1 and 2 still stand. And it seems to me that the critical argument is 2; was reprinting the cartoons necessary for the publication to pursue its mission of informing the public? I’m inclined to think it wasn’t.
Yet the journalist, for reasons not very clear to me, thought that electing not to post these cartoons was a serious enough breach of the principles of good journalism that he had to resign. Why in the world would a newspaper have the responsibility of printing an offensive cartoon if it is not convinced that printing it is necessary to provide its readership with a comprehension of the controversy? Nowhere does the principle of free speech, and free journalism seem to imply to me that newspapers must print the most offensive material they can in the service of vigorously exercising their rights.
Somehow, it seems like what is a fairly simple distinction for me, is very difficult for others. The flipside of every right is a responsibility. Having the right to say whatever we want bestows upon us the responsibility (albeit, not a legal one) of using that right well. It does not give us the license, much less the imperative of offending as many people at once as we possibly can, or of speaking just to demonstrate that our right of speech extends to the irresponsible.