Speech Is Tyranny!

Let's be clear — the right to free speech is the right to express oneself without state retaliation. It is not a right to speak without social retaliation. Speech has consequences. Among those consequences are condemnation, vituperation, scorn, ridicule, and pariah status. Those consequences represent other people exercising their free speech rights. That's a feature of the marketplace of ideas, not a bug.

Yet too many people seem to think that free speech includes not only a right to be free of consequences imposed by the state, but a right to be free of consequences imposed by other people. Therefore they attempt to portray criticism as a violation of their rights. This, of course, finds no support in the law, and is patently unsustainable as a philosophy besides — it nonsensically elevates the rights of the first person to talk over the rights of the second person to talk.

This noxious concept is now sufficiently widespread to warrant its own tag here: Speech is Tyranny! Often the argument involves portraying speech as violence, as when thin-skinned speakers complain that criticism of their speech is "terrorism" or "abuse", or claim that it is "chilling," thus misappropriating a term used to describe the effect of government restrictions on speech.   To that extent the argument  is related to, but not identical to, the European/Canadian/UN concept that "hate speech" is a violation of the rights of others.  Examples of this noxious trend:

  • California Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, who thinks that it is a "terrorist threat" for conservative commentators to tell Republican legislators that they will be voted out of office if they vote for new taxes.
  • Canadian Censor-In-Chief Jennifer Lynch, who thinks that free speech advocates are guilty of "reverse chill" when they criticize government censorship.
  • Clint Eastwood, who thinks he ought to have a right to tell ethnic jokes without having to fear someone might call him a racist.
  • The endless parade of morons who think that companies are violating entertainers' free speech rights if the companies cease paying the entertainers to promote products after the entertainers say something obnoxious (In the linked examples, David Letterman being dumped by Olive Garden for being a dick to Sarah Palin's daughter, and Whopi Goldbreg criticizing George Bush and losing SlimFast).
  • The parade of idiots from both sides of the spectrum who decry boycotts as violating the free speech rights of the boycotted (see, e.g., "this boycott violates the Dixie Chicks' right to free speech!!").
  • Rick Moran of RightWingNutHouse, a representative instance of the view that calling somebody or something racist breaks the marketplace of ideas because it goes "beyond critiquing the work and enter[s] the world of pure politics."
  • Prop 8 supporters who conflate actual violence and vandalism with harsh criticism by calling it all "intimidation."
  • Michael Savage, who thinks that people criticizing him and displaying clips of his show for comment are violating his free speech rights.

Now, some marketplace responses — some criticism and consequences for speech — display a fundamental intolerance for dissenting views.  Some marketplace responses are premised on ignorance or prejudice.  The proper way to deal with that is with more speech, trying to win more in the marketplace over to your view.  If I criticize President Obama or Governor Palin, and twenty blogs link to me calling me a fascist idiot who should be bombed with nasty comments and shunned from decent society, it's completely reasonable for me to respond by saying that fans of Obama/Palin are thin skinned weenies whose dramatic overreaction to critique demonstrates the bankruptcy of their ideas.  But if I respond by crying that my free speech rights have been violated by the response, I'm being an ass and willfully promoting ignorance of the fundamental nature of freedom of expression, perhaps our most important democratic value.  Someone ought to call me out on that.  Nobody promised the marketplace of ideas would be a fragrant rose garden.  Suck it up, or shut up.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. says

    And yet … I listen to conservative radio talkers on a fairly regular basis, and the amount of time each devotes to outright lies (which they present as factual) is incredible – so much so that I'll soon be taking a day and cataloging the full extent of such lies for that day. The study will bolster my thesis that since over-the-air programming is supposed to programmed "in the public interest," having commentators tell outright lies to their audiences as fact violates that directive, and that the FCC should enforce a "Factness Doctrine" forcing commentators to spend part of their shows correcting the lies they've previously told.

  2. says

    Well, Mark, I don't agree with the Fairness or Frankness Doctrine idea — I think the best remedy is response speech, like yours, pointing out the untruths.

  3. Linus says

    the FCC should enforce a “Factness Doctrine” forcing commentators to spend part of their shows correcting the lies they’ve previously told.

    Nice, a governmental entity as the supreme arbiter of truth. Nothing could go wrong *cough* Jennifer Lynch *cough* with that.

  4. says

    Wow, and I thought that Common Sense had become an oxymoron. That is about as clear and succinct as I have heard it put. Preach it brother.

  5. says

    Here's another one for you.

    Is is protected speech to call someone an idiot on the Internet on company time.

    The reason I ask this is because is was recently hit with a written reprimand on my personnel file at my worksite for doing this. I called my employer as a whole (who is a state government agency in the Eastern US – I won't tell where exactly) an idiot in a public message board on the Internet while I was on my afternoon break.

    The union wouldn't do anything about it. It's as though my right to express myself freely (but reasonably) is put in limbo every time I enter the front door of the worksite.

  6. says

    That's kind of unrelated to the post, axxis. But the short answer is (1) the First Amendment right doesn't give you the right to use the internet for personal use on company time, and (2) the right of public employees to criticize their employer is a complex issue under current law.