OPINION

Freedom of Speech

October 04, 2008
K. M.

Paul McKeever has a post on Freedom and the Proper Regulation of Speech in which he claims that it is the role of government to outlaw speech that denies individuals control over their life, liberty and property. The object of this post is to argue that freedom of speech is indeed absolute.

The right to freedom of speech is a special case of the right to freedom of action - the only right that man has (Look at the first five paragraphs of this post for a detailed argument on why man has the right to freedom of action). It is considered specially by most constitutions because of its importance in maintaining a free society. Given this importance, it is worth considering the concepts underlying the right to free speech.

Speech as a form of action:
Speech is just a form of action. There is nothing about speech that does not apply to other actions. Speech may involve the initiation of physical force. Shouting “Fire!” in a theatre is just as much of an initiation of force as is the breaking of a chair in the same theatre. Both are actions that are not permitted by the owner of the theatre and thus are an initiation of force.

Initiation of force:
Initiation of physical force is the only thing that can curtail man’s freedom of action, and consequently, the only thing that a government must protect. Any “regulation” of speech that does not involve the initiation of force is a violation of  the right to freedom of action.

Responsibility of judgement:
Judging the statements or claims made by others is a necessary part of living in a society. Since no one can think for another person, this judgement and its consequences are the sole responsibility of the individual. A liar is morally responsible for his lies but that does not absolve his victims from the responsibility of judgements. Nor does the fact that man is infallible absolve him of that responsibility. It is a fact of nature that man must think, judge and act even though he is neither omniscient nor omnipotent.

Fraud as distinct from lies:
Fraud is the violation of a contract and thus an initiation of force. Not every statement is made within the context of a contract. In fact the vast majority of conversations do not involve any contract at all.

Role of government:
The proper role of government is limited to protecting the right to freedom of action. Ensuring any other form of justice is not its role. Notably, ensuring that rational men do not suffer because of the wrong judgements of others is not the role of government. Governments are instituted because of the necessity of placing the retalliatory use of force under objective control. Any other function that a government performs necessarily involves the initiation of force and is a perversion of the concept of a government.

Impossibility of outlawing lies:
The initiation of physical force (whether direct or the violation of a contract) is an objective standard. There can be no honest disagreement about whether a particular case involves the initiation of physical force in the presence of witnesses or evidence. Truth is often not an objective standard legally nor does it apply to all statements. A statement such as “X is incompetent to complete project Y on time.” is a matter of individual judgement and a prediction about the future. Truth does not apply to it. A statement such as “Candidate X believes in sorcery” cannot be judged objectively as there is no way to either prove or disprove it. A legal system that allows laws without objective standards will soon disintegrate into an arbitrary rule of men.

It should be clear from the above points that freedom of speech is an absolute right just like the right to life and the right to property and may not be violated by a proper government. For the sake of completeness however, I will analyze the flaw in McKeever’s argument and consider his examples.

McKeever writes:

Freedom is control. Specifically, it is control over ones own liberty and property; over the pursuit of ones own survival and happiness. The role of government is to ensure that no other person causes you to lose that control; that no other person deprives you of your freedom.

This is the primary flaw in his argument. Freedom is not control. Man is free by nature. He does not control his own life in the same sense. For example, I do not control whether I get to keep my job. If my employer decides to fire me, is he causing me to lose my control? I do not control my immediate emotions. If a stranger abuses me verbally and I get angry, is he causing me to lose my control? In both these cases I retain my freedom but do I lose my control or did I never have it?

Consider his examples:

By selling you a can of highly corrosive acid labeled “Soda Pop”, a person can deprive you of your life.

This is fraud and has nothing to do with freedom of speech.

By framing you for a crime you did not commit, or by bearing false witness against you, you can be deprived of your liberty.

If he frames me for a crime I did not commit and escapes detection completely so that he is not even required to testify, this has nothing to do with freedom of speech. If he bears false witness, he is lying intentionally on oath, which is a violation of an explicit contract with the legal system itself. Again it has nothing to do with freedom of speech.

By selling you an ineffective substance as “a new, 100% effective cure for strep throat”, you can be deprived of your property (i.e., the money you paid for the substance).

Fraud again.

Common to each example is the making of false or arbitrary assertions upon which you or others found decisions concerning your life, liberty, or property.

No. Common to each example is the initiation of force.

I am a software developer based in Mumbai. I am interested in ethics, politics, culture, books and philosophy in general. Most of all, I am interested in making the most of my life. You can find my blog here
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