Blogs > Liberty and Power > Antiwar Libertarians Need to Defend Free Speech

Feb 9, 2006 2:23 am


Antiwar Libertarians Need to Defend Free Speech



I had planned to hold off and blog on another issue but had to say something about the perplexing failure of so many antiwar libertarians (with some notable exceptions such as Matt Barganier) to speak out forcefully for free speech in the Mohammed cartoon case. A recent example is Justin Raimondo. As usual, he does nothing half way. At no point in Justin's column today, does he take the opportunity to defend the legal right of newspapers to publish the cartoons.

Instead, he makes statements like these:

This issue has nothing to do with"freedom of speech." The government of Denmark is not about to prosecute Jyllands-Posten, nor will the EU – although they could do so, given the existence of"hate speech" legislation signed into law in both cases. But I don't recall that any Arab governments or significant spokesmen have called for such action: they just want an apology. Not an unreasonable demand, given the circumstances, and, in any case, the protesters are just practicing their right of free speech, now aren't they?

This is completely wrongheaded. Now more than ever, antiwar libertarians have an obligation to to speak out to their antiwar allies on the left as well as to the American public on the importance of free speech.

If, instead, they choose to join the calls to appease the banners, censors, and anti-liberty protestors with"apologies" and groveling, there will be no end to it. Most of the cartoons, after all, were no more offensive than the depiction of Christ in the"Last Temptation," Dante's incendiary portrait of Mohammed in The Divine Comedy, or even South Park's lampooning of Jesus Christ or Pope Benedict. Should the creators, or purveyors, of these"offensive" works also be required to apologize?

Perhaps many antiwar libertarians are fearful that they might give ammunition to those who justify the war on the grounds that the Middle East is"Islamofascist." This precise opposite is true. Few issues better illustrate the folly of neocon/Jacobin foreign intervention as this one. The most obvious example is the readiness of our"democratic" allies in Iraq and Afghanistan to throw aside any alleged"pro liberty" views and join the anti-Dane lynch mob.


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Mark Brady - 2/10/2006

David writes, "about the perplexing failure of so many antiwar libertarians (with some notable exceptions such as Matt Barganier) to speak out forcefully for free speech in the Mohammed cartoon case. A recent example is Justin Raimondo." Who else did you have in mind?


Matt Barganier - 2/10/2006

Mr. Bolton keeps talking about free speech not being the same as speech without consequences. I couldn't agree more. For instance, writing letters requesting that a publication apologize, grant equal time, or censure or fire those who give offense -- all of those are perfectly legitimate exercises of rights in which the rights of others are not infringed. It's ridiculous to equate peaceful protests, letter- writing campaigns, etc. with state censorship, as some liberals and wimpy libertarians occasionally do. It's equally ridiculous (from a libertarian standpoint, anyway) to act as if prior restraint by the state is the only restriction of free speech worth discussing.

By the way, I would be the last to claim that the US govt should intervene in another country's internal affairs for any reason, so that's a straw man.


Matt Barganier - 2/10/2006

Mr. Bolton keeps talking about free speech not being the same as speech without consequences. I couldn't agree more. For instance, writing letters requesting that a publication apologize, grant equal time, or censure or fire those who give offense -- all of those are perfectly legitimate exercises of rights in which the rights of others are not infringed. It's ridiculous to equate peaceful protests, letter- writing campaigns, etc. with state censorship, as some liberals and wimpy libertarians occasionally do. It's equally ridiculous (from a libertarian standpoint, anyway) to act as if prior restraint by the state is the only restriction of free speech worth discussing.

By the way, I would be the last to claim that the US govt should intervene in another country's internal affairs for any reason, so that's a straw man.


Craig J. Bolton - 2/10/2006

Mr. Beito asks us to "to speak out forcefully for free speech in the Mohammed cartoon case." I don't see any "free speech" issue in this case. No one was prevented by government action from publishing the cartoons in the first place.

The violent mobs you refer to are hundreds of miles away from the cartoonists, in another nation, and are being roundly condemned by virtually everyone in Denmark.

Further, I'm not at all certain that I want to "condemn" someone across cultural boundaries for being stupid and nasty but not actually violating anyone's rights. If Syrians want to yell and scream and burn buildings in Syria over some Danish cartoons, let them go to it. It is a Syrian problem. So is the problem of civility. I am not offended by the nasty things that someone half a world away may say about me or what should be done to me. Are you?

All of this, I think, has to do with two different conceptions of "rights" - there is the traditional French imperialist conception - that rights are the same for everybody and ought to be imposed on everyone [for their own good, of course]. And the more American/British conception - that rights grow up through an evolutionary process and are correctly what a people want them to be. I am for Danish rights for Danes, but not Danish rights for Syrians.


Sheldon Richman - 2/9/2006

When violent mobs call for the beheading of cartoonists who have merely insulted them, that's worth condemning in the name of civility. What's so hard to understand?


Jason Pappas - 2/9/2006

Let me just address one dimension of your response. Your focus is on government action and legal rights. That issue is near trivial for a libertarian or sympathizer. My focus is not government actions but citizen actions. What must we do to insure a healthy disposition to enjoy and guard our common rights? What ethical practices enhance our resolve to be vigilant towards those rights? Being silent isn’t one of them. Watching others intimidated into silence isn’t another.

I argue (in the above link) that our press is backing away from its tradition journalistic standards. If the story is about picture (and they are not X-rated) the press has traditionally printed them. In times like these, they would be particularly inclined to show their solidarity with their Danish collogues. Instead, the American press has pre-emptively capitulated to intimidation sending a very disturbing message.


Craig J. Bolton - 2/9/2006

Perhaps the problem here is a conflict of views regarding what constitutes our proper liberties. IMHO the "right to freedom of speech" means only the right not to be muzzled. It does not mean that ones speech should be free of any consequences. In this respect I differ from, say, the USSC holdings of the past 30 years that have basically made an action for libel or slander unwinable. You say what you believe is important to say, and if what you have said is and should be actionable at law [or in the opinions of your fellows] you pay the consequences.

Similarly, for the above reason and others, I don't think that the federal govenment of the United States should act to protect a U.S. newspaper from riots in Syria over what that American newspaper prints. In fact, I think that such a view results in exactly the sort of Bismarchian foreign policy that we've seen vigorously pursued over the past 6 years.

It seems to me that we are dancing around these more fundamental issues by referring to slogans instead of hard legal analysis and by proclaiming our commitment to universal human liberties when, in fact, some societies have such liberties and others do not.


John W. Payne - 2/9/2006

Just checking, but when did Lebanon become a theocracy or near theocracy?


Jason Pappas - 2/9/2006

I agree with you that re-affirming our support for the “legal right” to freedom of speech and press is important in the face of pressure to establish restrictions on these liberties. Such restrictions already exist in several European countries and came close to becoming law in the UK.

However, I find the typical libertarian analysis somewhat superficial. The question of the “legal right” is important but even a legal right is moot if there is so much intimidation that those who would exercise their right are afraid to do so. A tradition of liberty requires more than the assent to propositions about positive law. Without a vigorous exercising of our rights (which the American press is unwilling to do) and a popular mobilization to aid those who face intimidation, our commitment will atrophy, setting the stage for a piecemeal loss of our most precious liberties (which has already occurred in most areas.)

We need to speak out vociferously at this time to pre-empt further legal erosions to our rights and express our solidarity with those who are intimidated.


Craig J. Bolton - 2/9/2006

I'm afraid that I just don't get this post or most of the reactions to it. The "burning of buildings" and mob violence has been in exactly those countries that are already theocracies or near theocracies. It has been by the fanatics of those countries inflicted mainly on other fanatics of those countries or government buildings in those countries. [Are libertarians now the principal defenders of government property?] So what do you expect when you offend the historical origin of the theology underlying a theocracy?

The building of the news sheet that published the cartoons hasn't been burned or threatened, neither have the buildings of any of the newspapers that republished them.

Places like Syria, Gaza and Iran aren't exactly libertarian democracies with a Bill of Rights. Live with it. Personally, I'm a lot more concerned over religious fanatics killing abortion doctors or blowing up buildings in the U.S. than I am some mob of fanatics burning down a building in Syria.

Somehow, what should have been a ho-hum story about typical neo-con-like bigotry followed by the typical violent reaction by religious fanatics who were the target of such bigotry has become some great debate over civil liberties IN THE WEST. Nothing is happening to those responsible for kicking off this absurdity IN THE WEST. Nothing is credibly threatened against them. Where's the issue?


Matt Barganier - 2/9/2006

Yes, you're right. When I refer to "free speech" as the right to say something without being physically attacked or having one's property destroyed, it's really confusing. I wonder how anyone else understood what I (and hundreds of other people who have commented on this matter) meant. Thanks for reminding me that the definition I used has "no authority outside my own head."


Gary McGath - 2/9/2006

The demonstrators are burning buildings and issuing threats not just for the fun of it, but to intimidate governments into prosecuting the cartoonists. So it's a free speech issue, even in the narrow sense.


Sheldon Richman - 2/9/2006

Good post, David. There may be a good story behind the publication and republication of the cartoons. But first things first. Mob violence against innocents cannot be justified. Sad that this needs to be said.


chris l pettit - 2/9/2006

unless you are simply espousing an ideology (which is irrelevent if you actually want to discuss what is happening in a universal sense), you have to utilize the universally recognized legal definition (meant to rise above ideology, politics, whatnot).

No one really cares what you think about the issue within your narrow ideological framework (as ideologues cannot be swayed by reason...they just believe...hence the reason they are ideologues in the first place)...weveryone wants to impose their own ideological framework on the issue. This is why we must resort to the legal definition and framework (though not US...international law actually...since US law is simply US legal ideology...another long explanation) that is universally agreed upon and articulated.

With free speech comes responsibility and obligations...no right is absolute, and no right relates only to the individual. I understand the libertarian issue with this from an ideological stance, but (as a professor of rights theory), Nozick's conceptions have been refuted from several different angles, right and left, and he has never bothered to respond to the criticisms. his theory is incomplete and very fallible. Liberty cannot be the basis of a theory of rights...it necessarily negates the very idea of rights...Nozick never really addresses this vital point.

The legal definition is what we need to be discussing in this case...if you are utilizing an ideological definition...MAKE IT CRYSTAL CLEAR...so that everyone knows that your definition holds no authority outside your own head and ideological stance.

CP


Gary McGath - 2/9/2006

In the discussion which I mentioned in a different comment branch, the person in question was citing (and inventing) statements by Bush to distract attention from the anti-cartoon vandalism and threats. So I'd say reflexive anti-Americanism is involved, even though it isn't logical.


Matt Barganier - 2/9/2006

Well, I don't think anti-Americanism is an issue here, given that we're talking about a Danish newspaper. I appreciate your point, but let's stick to the issue at hand.


Steven Horwitz - 2/9/2006

All I'll say is "amen." The worst thing that libertarians, esp. anti-war libertarians, can ever do is become so reflexively anti-American that we lose sight of the very liberties we feel that war annihilates.


Matt Barganier - 2/9/2006

Let's not be pedantic. When most people discuss "free speech," they're not using it in the narrow sense it would have in a constitutional law class.

And I apologize if you think I meant that you were in favor of burning buildings, though I think that's a rather uncharitable reading of my comment.


Craig J. Bolton - 2/9/2006

Sorry fellow, but that is THE definition of "free speech." Ask any constitutional lawyer. You may want "free speech" to mean speech without consequences, but that's not what it means.

And where did you get that I was in favor of burning buildings any more than I am in favor of bigots trying to demean or bait people of another race or religion or ethinicity? You know, it is possible to be opposed to both sorts of acts.


Matt Barganier - 2/9/2006

At no point in Justin's column today, does he take the opportunity to defend the legal right of newspapers to publish the cartoons.

In fairness, Justin takes their legal right to publish the cartoons as a given. My only point is that free speech can be threatened by non-state forces, too, such as violent mobs who demand an apology. I don't believe that the Iranian president's offensive remarks about the Holocaust justify a violent response, and I don't believe that a newspaper's offensive cartoons do either. That's all.


Gary McGath - 2/9/2006

I've been in a discussion on one libertarian message board, in which a participant has been repeatedly attempting to change the subject to George Bush, and calling me an apologist for Christianity (which is a real laugh). There's a certain kind of fake libertarian that doesn't object to violence as long as it's directed against the West, and that can't tell the difference between burning an embassy and "just wanting an apology."


Matt Barganier - 2/9/2006

[i]"Freedom of speech" is, indeed, a prohibition against government utilizing prior restriant to stifle speech, end of story.[/i]

That's a ridiculously narrow construction of the phrase. And when "jumping up and down" translates into burning buildings and attacking random people of European ancestry until a newspaper issues an apology for hurting your feelings, then that's anti-free speech in any meaningful sense of the term. And there's a difference between applauding the offenders and sticking up for their right to offend.


Craig J. Bolton - 2/9/2006

As much as I hate to defend Justin Raimondi, I understand his point very well and don't understand your point at all.

"Freedom of speech" is, indeed, a prohibition against government utilizing prior restriant to stifle speech, end of story. [Actually, this is a freedom of the press story, not a freedom of speech story, but nevermind the distinction for purposes of this discussion.]

To go beyond the simple concept of "freedom of speech" as a constraint on certain sorts of government action is to turn government into an advocate of one type of speech versus another. Hence, the Danish pubisher "has a right" to publish what it wants and the protestors "have a right to jump up and down, scream they're insulted and demand an apology." [Actually, neither has such a right, because they don't live under American law, but that is another quibble for another day.]

Now freedom of speech, of course, has nothing to do with politeness or good sense. The "Dirty Speech Movement" at Berkeley in the 60s practiced freedom of speech, they were permitted to do so, but not much of anyone liked them or endorsed what they were doing. Same distinction here. If you want to go about impuning someone's religious beliefs or their race or their ethinicity, etc. then go to it, but don't expect me to cheer or congratulate your for your courageous freedom of speech. It is not courageous, it is impolite and the mark of a regressive mentality.

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