Free Speech For Me, Not For You

Free Speech For Me, Not For You

The fallout continues over a banned demonstration in a small Norwegian city. A neo-Nazi group wanted to hold a demonstration with the theme “crush the gay lobby”. They applied for a permit from the police, which was initially granted. After it became publicly known that this particular group wanted to demonstrate, left-wing counterdemonstrators threatened violence. The permit was then withdrawn by the police citing public safety concerns. Today I read a piece sent in by a reader to one of the country’s largest newspapers. The reader argued that allowing the original demonstration to go ahead is wrong, due to the threat contained within “crush the gay lobby”.

I have argued in another post that giving in to threats of violence is very detrimental to a free flow of ideas. I’m not going to re-hash that part of the argument here. I think it is rather self-evident why allowing violence to dictate what can and can’t be said in public is a terrible idea. What I want to explore here and now is the concept of disallowing speech that contains implied and indirect threats. Obviously, there should be consequences to direct threats such as “give me your wallet or I will smash your face”. What is not obvious is that it is a good idea to prohibit speech based on a subjective threat-assessment.

If that was the standard, I could make the case for banning all the political parties currently represented in our parliament. They all support conscription, a fancy name for slavery. Comparing the definitions of slavery with conscription in any reputable dictionary will confirm this. According to my own moral compass, slavery is reprehensible. Supporting slavery is also a clear threat of mass kidnapping. Following the newspaper commenter’s logic we thus have a solid case for banning almost all political parties in the country.

Another facet of this is that the argument can be used against those it is intended to protect. Prior to the legalization of homosexuality in Norway in the early 70’s I’m sure many would consider such behavior a threat. Perhaps only a threat against their values and morals, but a threat nonetheless. Once again, following the commenter’s logic pro-LGBT activism and speech would be outlawed. Back to the present. Taking into consideration the 9-digit number of victims of communism in the 20th century, a credible case for banning all moderate and radically left-wing parties could be made. People on the left could make a similar case against the far-right. Thus begins a race to the bottom, in which only the most bland, centrist, toothless politics would be allowed.

I regret the lack of staunch, principled thinking when it comes to questions about political freedom. You have to allow the free speech of others in order to truly have free speech yourself. Who decided where the line goes between free speech and hate speech? We currently have hate speech laws on the books. Coupled with the infamously nefarious legal standard “I know it when I see it” this sets a chilling precedent for the free exercise of political thought. We have free speech laws precisely to protect vile and unpopular speech. The threats of violence and the desire to ban speech can only push groups on the fringes of society out of the light into darkness. Taking into consideration the numerous violent attacks committed by neo-Nazis in the past, do we really want to punish such a group today for attempting to play by the democratic rules by speaking in public and following the process by applying for a permit? Think hard before you dismiss them out of hand, for the consequences will be far-reaching.

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