No free speech for assholes!

For some time now, I have noticed that defenders of free speech are more concerned with whether they agree with the speaker than with the principle of free speech itself. For leftists, free speech is fine for Bush-hating antiwar activists, disruptive demonstrators, artists who ridicule Christianity by putting crucifixes in urine or throwing dung at the Madonna. But where it comes to the free speech rights of rabid anti-abortion protesters, anti-gay demonstrators, or those who ridicule or insult Islam, leftists tend towards either silence or open hostility. (The latter often takes the form of calling it "hate speech," which is increasingly being conflated with "hate crime" legislation).

While I'd like to believe that conservatives (especially libertarians) are more principled, the reality is that in practice, most people tend to defend the rights of speakers they agree with, while ignoring the rights of speakers they disagree with. (An S&M takeoff on a religious painting drew a very strong reaction from anti-gay activists, who called it "blasphemous" -- and they think society has a right to censor blasphemy.) I worry that this is human nature. The principle of "free speech for me, but not for thee" is an old one, and it cuts across the spectrum.

An article linked by Glenn Reynolds this morning made me wonder whether the key inquiry is now simply whether the speaker is an "asshole," and whether the principle can be restated as "free speech for assholes, but only for our assholes!"

No seriously. In "The elephant in the room" -- a writer who describes himself as "a member of Canada's expansive arts scene" looks into the deafening silence by the left over the censorship of conservative speech by Canada's "Human Rights Commission":

The state will order Maclean's to publish something it does not want to publish. Isn't that what China does? So why don't ear-to-the-ground, free speech-loving Canadian artists denounce it?
Good questions. But whether Steyn should have free speech seems to revolve around whether he's an "asshole":
At a trendy Toronto Annex watering hole, I recently posed this question to a lead scion of the left. Without hesitation he said, "Because Mark Steyn's an ---hole." "That may be," I responded. "He may also be right-wing, and you may be left-wing. But those are very poor reasons to deny a person or group their Charter rights." The fellow conceded my point, but I could sense he didn't understand how easily he could come to find himself in the same position in the near future.

Normally it makes sense to put one's political clout behind knocking down such an ambiguous bill as C-10. But when artists and supposed advocates of free speech denounce Bill C-10, but not the Maclean's tribunal, they are not only turning their backs on a fellow creator but also setting themselves up for future persecution by these same tribunals. What if celebrated Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar had made Labyrinth of Passion, a film about a gay Islamic terrorist, here in our free country? His film would likely "subject Muslims to hate" in the same way that Mark Steyn's writing does. A fat lot of good secured tax credits would do you when you're barred from making your film on "moral" grounds.

Well, the problem is that "morality" is reflexively seen as superseding free speech rights. That's why attacks on free speech are couched in moralistic terms. To prevent "hate." To protect "the children." Or even to maintain "fairness" or uphold some vague notion called "neutrality."

Hey, I just caught myself repeating myself, so I might as well repeat myself:

It doesn't seem that they'll ever stop. If it isn't one pretext, it will be another. If not "fairness," then "hate speech." If not "hate," then "the children."

The optimist in my likes to think that eventually the people they want to regulate will catch on.

Will the leftists who believe in free speech be coming to the defense of Mark Steyn against the "Human Rights Commission"?

I haven't checked the blogs in detail, but my worry is that Steyn will be defended only by his fellow "assholes."

I guess defending his rights would make me an asshole too, but that's not the way free speech is supposed to work.

What's more shocking is the lack of media coverage over something that is happening next door. Bookworm looked at American journalists' "stunning lack of curiosity, let alone outrage, about the Mark Steyn persecution taking place in Canada:

....As a matter of principle, American newspapers should be howling at the thought that the Canadian government is stifling free speech. The most that's happened in the MSM, though, is a single New York Times article that presents the whole thing as an interesting relativistic question between old fashioned American values (free speech) and sophisticated European norms.

The problem, of course, is that members of the American media don't like Mark Steyn's speech, which recognizes factual truths that the American media refuses to acknowledge. They're therefore very happy for the Canadian government to do their dirty work and shut Mark Steyn down. The fact that a greater principle is involved than their personal prejudices -- and it's a principle that affects them, the media, more than any single job demographic in America -- does not seem to occur to them....

It's nice that Times readers can learn about Canadian censorship and the Steyn case -- even if under the rubric of "culture clash." But far from the expressions of outrage you might expect, there's been little to no reporting of this case in most newspapers. I've seen nothing in the Inquirer about the case, even though Mark Steyn is a journalist who is facing censorship.

Is that because he's an "asshole"?

posted by Eric on 06.20.08 at 10:18 AM


There is an enormous difference between publicly condemning something - which is also a free speech right - and getting the government to put a stop to it. Asking political figures to condemn (but not interfere with) something falls somewhere in between, but tends more to the free-speech side than the censorship side.

Assistant Village Idiot   ·  June 20, 2008 3:51 PM

No, it's not because Steyn is an a-hole, it's because the Inquirer sucks as a newspaper.

Eric Blair   ·  June 20, 2008 11:33 PM

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