Dangerous free speech and moral responsibility

by Alan Cohen

This hilariously shocking image from The Onion got me thinking about the moral issues surrounding free speech and its consequences. (For anyone unfamiliar with the back story, an offensive anti-muslim video made in the US, with sexual depictions of Mohammed, set off riots and protests around the muslim world. These protests resulted in the deaths of at least 4 people, including the US ambassador to Libya, who had played a large role in encouraging a transition to democracy there.)

There are essentially two points of view that have been expressed on this by people in the West. The first point of view (essentially Obama’s) is that, while the video is offensive, it should be protected as free speech, and the deaths are the fault of the rioters. The second point of view (Romney’s) is the same, without mention of the fact that the video is offensive. I disagree with both these opinions: while I feel the rioters are responsible for the deaths, I feel those who made and publicized the video knowing its likely consequences are equally responsible, and I do not feel the video should be protected speech. This may seem shocking to most of my readers, who are largely westerners accustomed to thinking of free speech as an absolute good. Hear me out, and then disagree in the comments section if you want.

While I fully agree that free speech is a critical aspect of a functioning democracy and a healthy society, it is not the only important principle. A strong economy, a fair system of justice, peace, social cohesion, caring for our family, our neighbors, our fellow humans: these are all important aspects of a healthy society. Ideally they can co-exist, but once in a while, around the edges, these principles will come into conflict with each other and one will have to be sacrificed in order to preseve another. The absolutist defense of free speech assumes that it always trumps these other values.

Clearly, few people are true free speech absolutists. The common example given is that we are not allowed to shout “Fire” in a crowded theater, as this would result in foreseeable deaths during a stampede. The argument is that shouting “Fire” is not a meaningful expression of political or social discourse, and results in a substantial and foreseeable harm to others.

In my opinion, the anti-muslim video is more akin to shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater than to a meaningful political discourse. The same movie could have been made without depicting Mohammed visually (but with an equally offensive view of muslims) and it would not have sparked the riots. In fact, the only reason to include the offensive images of Mohammed is because those who made the video knew specifically that such images were sure to cause exactly the sort of outrage and violence that they did. The reason for the inclusion of the images, then, is not to engage in political discourse, but to provoke violence, just like yelling “Fire” in a theater.

More generally, in the West (and particularly in the US) a tradition of individualism encourages us to act without consideration of the consequences of our actions for others. I will say and do what I want because it’s my right, and if someone else gets hurt, even in a foreseeable way, that’s not my problem. This is what “freedom” means to many Americans. I lived in Japan for a couple years, and this idea is not held there. One is always aware of how one’s actions affect others: am I talking too loudly on the train? Will my actions reflect badly on my family or my company? This obligation to always consider the effects of one’s actions is a heavy burden day-to-day, but it also results in more social cohesion. There are good and bad sides to individualism and to its alternative, a more inter-connected view of society.

While there is no right-wrong answer to the appropriate balance between these principles, I am increasingly uncomfortable with the extreme individualist end of the spectrum. In my daily life, I consider how my actions affect those around me, and I want others to do the same for me. In my scientific life, I view more and more the complex connections and inter-dependencies among molecules in our bodies, among social factors in society, among different aspects of law in driving policy, and among people themselves. So I feel that extreme individualism is irresponsible (and based on a false perception of individuals as discconnected islands), and that there should be legal consequences for failing to consider the consequences of one’s actions on others.

For example, I have a driver’s license, and this gives me the right to drive. If I am driving along the highway and I come upon a group of protesters, I am not allowed to drive through them and kill them – even if they do not have the right to be there, and even if they refuse to let me pass. The foreseeable consequences of continuing to drive clearly outweigh my right to drive. Obviously, the right to drive is not held in as much philosophical esteem as the right to free speech, but the consequences of stopping everyone from driving (on the economy, for example) would arguably be larger than the consequences of eliminating free speech. It’s just that the right to drive doesn’t get our moral hackles up.

One major objection to restrictions on free speech is the slippery-slope argument. Who defines what speech is acceptable? Is there a government office to censor the unacceptable? These are largely insurmountable hurdles to restricting free speech, and accordingly I do not favor any legal restrictions on what can be said. I remain a free-speech absolutist in that sense, but I feel that individuals should be held responsible for the foreseeable consequences of their speech.

According to this principle, everyone is free to yell “Fire” in a crowded theater, but if they do they could be held responsible for any deaths or property damage that occur in a stampede, as negligent homicide or vandalism. The same principle would apply to other aspects of speech: say what you want, but if you do it in a way that foreseeably endangers others, expect to be held responsible for the consequences. The makers of the anti-muslim video would not be censored, but could be prosecuted for negligent homicide or incitement to violence, and could be sued by the families of the deceased for wrongful death.

In addition, we could add an exception to this principle that ensures that all political, social, and religious ideas can be expressed, and that if those expressing the ideas had no way to express them without causing danger, they are protected from the consequences. In this case, it is not the fact that the video critiqued Islam and resulted in violence that makes the producers culpable, but rather that they could have expressed the same ideas without depicting Mohammed offensively and causing risk.

This does not in any way absolve the guilt of the rioters and attackers, and it does not justify the extreme and absurd sensitivity of some muslims to media from other parts of the world. But the fact that the attackers are wrong does not make the consequence of the video any less foreseeable or horrific, and the makers of the video bear some responsibility too.

I am looking forward to seeing why many of you disagree with me on this! (I know you will.)