This weekend, I noticed and posted at Central Sanity what I found to be an intriguing dichotomy: Two attempts to limit the free expression of opinions, one from the left (taking issue with planned protests of Ahmadinejad’s Columbia U. appearance) and one from the right (labeling war protestors as treasonous).

Yesterday, an anonymous commenter made several points on that post, concluding:

Does anyone truly believe freedom of speech should be unfettered? Are you willing to allow racists to use racial slurs on your blog? Some speech gives cause for people to use sticks and stones to break others’ bones. Reasonable limitations on speech helps keep our society civil.

Point taken. We can’t falsely scream “fire” in a crowded theater. But beyond that one precise hypothetical example, where else do we draw the line? Some would err on the side of limitation; they’d rather risk too many limits than allow too many “dangerous” words. Others (including me) would err on the side of openness; we’d rather risk too many “dangerous” words than wake up to find well-intentioned limits encroaching on our right to peaceably assemble and speak our minds.

Picking up and expanding on my questions of that anonymous CS commenter: How do we productively distinguish dissent from treason? What entity do we trust, and comprised of whom, to make these judgments? When considering those who argue against the current war in Iraq, how do we decide (or can we) that Chuck Hagel’s or Ron Paul’s speech is more legitimate than Nancy Pelosi’s or Harry Reid’s? If there’s no difference in their fundamental message, is it their word choice that makes the difference? If so, by what method do we determine the words that are acceptable vs. those that are not?

It’s a classic slippery slope, although I don’t think the answers are particularly complicated: Live and let live. Speak and let speak. Recognize that opinions never killed anyone and that what we say matters far less than how we individually and collectively act.

Go ahead, call me naïve.

PETE ABEL
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krit
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krit
9 years 2 hours ago
I think as much as possible, we need to err on the side of the First Amendment, even when it crosses the line. Unpopular speech still expresses a point of view that will not go away if suppressed, but may go underground. It is better to know what we face as a people, rather than to allow an image to be shaped by the perceptions of the media or of the governing body. We can see from yesterday, that Ahmadinejad, rather than being the boogey man from a country with a starring position on the Axis of Evil, came across… Read more »
MarloweC
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MarloweC
9 years 1 hour ago
Pete’s question – “How do we productively distinguish dissent from treason?” – concerns more relations within the American community than Ahmadinejad. I would argue this is a critically important question in these poisonously toxic times. What passes for dissent today would – a half-century ago – be likely labelled treason. I note yesterday’s ruling by Ms. Coyote, the person responsible for film in the city of San Francisco, that the US Marines are not allowed to film a commercial on the streets of San Francisco if the filming involved Marines in uniform (later she backtracked, and declared it a traffic… Read more »
krit
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krit
9 years 52 minutes ago
Marlowe- I think you are confusing the right to free speech with the wisdom of using destructively partisan rhetoric- which by the way- both sides freely engage in. Why mention your marine example yet fail to mention the arrest of an Atlanta couple for the “crime” of wearing an anti-Bush t-shirt to one of his rallies? Or the fact that the former surgeon general of the US had a speech rejected when it didn’t praise the Bush administration’s accomplishments at least three times per paragraph? The GOP under Bush have provided us with the epitome of stifling dissent in order… Read more »
C Stanley
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C Stanley
8 years 11 months ago
Recognize that opinions never killed anyone and that what we say matters far less than how we individually and collectively act. I’ve seen a lot of variations on this but I think it misses the point. It’s not a matter of thinking that words can “break bones” as sticks and stones can, it’s that a certain type of speech tends to poison the atmosphere. And here’s the worst part in domestic politics, IMO: generally what happens when a politician demonizes an opponent is that he rallies his own base, but he’s done so without taking responsibility for an actual policy… Read more »
pacatrue
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pacatrue
8 years 11 months ago
As always, lots of issues. I originally wanted to comment on the “you don’t allow racist comments on your blog” argument. I still think there is a very basic difference between a private party choosing not to allow certain speech and that same speech not being allowed in the public domain. One can easily think that certain types of comments do not further honest debate and therefore disallow them in some private forum, while at the same time defending the rights of the idiots to say poisonous things in public and being free from LEGAL prosecution because of it (which… Read more »
domajot
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domajot
8 years 11 months ago
A terrific question to ask and one that will never be fully resolved, in my estimation. Where limits are set will depend on how potential harm is estimated. and there are always ten different ways to estimate and to define potential harm, This seems to be much like the debate about the Patriot Act and how civil liberties and security are balanced. As much as possible, I come down on the side of civil liberties and free speech, but I recognize that some regulation is necessary. In determining the line between dissent and treason, I would look more at what… Read more »
domajot
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domajot
8 years 11 months ago
“It’s not a matter of thinking that words can “break bones” as sticks and stones can, it’s that a certain type of speech tends to poison the atmosphere.” Almost everyone agrees about the poisoned atmosphere and the sad state of paritisan warfare. What we can’t seem to agree on is how to combat it. We all hate negative and smear campaign ads, but who would be willing to go so far as to cede victory to opponents for the sake of upholding high principle within one’s own camp? Those for whom the poisoned atmosphere works are not likely to change… Read more »
Somebody
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Somebody
8 years 11 months ago
A great line from “Crimson Tide” could be used here. “We are here to defend Democracy…….Not practice it.” Captain of the boat Gene Hackman responding to Ships XO Denzel Washington. Bill Clinton defeated Bush by turning every argument into “Its the economy stupid.” He won reelection by turning every argument into “Its the economy stupid.” The democrats have taken that page once again and won the day with “Its the war stupid.” Beyond the war what do they have? No one knows and no one cares because…. “Its the WAR stupid.” Is this anyway to run a country? No. But… Read more »
MarloweC
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MarloweC
8 years 11 months ago
Krit said: “Why mention your marine example yet fail to mention the arrest of an Atlanta couple for the “crime” of wearing an anti-Bush t-shirt to one of his rallies? Or the fact that the former surgeon general of the US had a speech rejected when it didn’t praise the Bush administration’s accomplishments at least three times per paragraph?” Krit, I don’t mention this because it is confusing apples with planetary bodies. Every administration is bloody-minded about restricting the speech of officials to those reflecting the administration’s views. EVERY administration, without exception. As for the t-shirt controversy, their right to… Read more »
MarloweC
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MarloweC
8 years 11 months ago
I think Domajot makes a good point in his noting there seem to be 2 approaches to this dilemma: one, beginning with free speech, and then considering regulations; and the second, beginning with restrictions, and then considering when one can speak freely. As a veteran of the speech code wars in academia in the 1990s, I saw the latter in operation quite often (“appropriate” or “responsible speech” it was called), although its advocates would have declared themselves defenders of free speech (aren’t we all?). For the record: I have long been a believer in radical free speech…in which everyone has… Read more »
Sam
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Sam
8 years 11 months ago
The idea of confusing treason with loudly proclaiming your dislike of an elected official or tactics used by the gov’t is just dumb. Are they espousing violent overthrow of the republic? Killing cops and officials for carrying out the law? Talking about doing it? Thats treason. Saying you think the president, a senator, a mayor, or even our military is a pack of idiots that are screwing things up is not treason, its expression. Saying we are going about the war on terror the wrong way is not treason. Saying its ok to bomb american cities is. Treason is the… Read more »
domajot
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domajot
8 years 11 months ago
Marlowe – Your SF theme points to another dilemma we have, one concerning local ‘democracy’ vs broader regualtions by state or even federal government. I see this as a dilemma, and I cam see ;legitimate arguments on both sides. Local, homogenious communities are much more likely to trample on minority rights. IMO. The question becomes one of balancing the rights of local communities to realize their preferences via local governemtn and protecting minority rights within that community There is unrevocable tension between the two, and, frankly, I don’t see how it can always be resolved by a one rule fits… Read more »
domajot
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domajot
8 years 11 months ago

PS
I have an answer to resolve all these problems, one that is clearly the right answer and what the American people want: When in dount, do what domajot says.
Hahahahahahahahaha

krit
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krit
8 years 11 months ago

Marlowe- I honestly don’t think there is that much difference. Give me one example of another administration censuring speeches by its cabinet members- just one.

As for the t-shirt incident, the policy was written by Karl Rove— so not Bush- Bush’s brain.

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