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2d04 – There should be limits for freedom of speech

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Sometimes people say things that indeed make you wonder: Should there be limits to freedom of speech? Sounds like the making of a debate, and Sebastian and Dirk had it…

Image source: Newtown graffiti, CC, Link

Episode Transcript

Sebastian – Hello everyone and welcome to our latest edition of, our podcast of debates. I am Sebastian and my co-host here is Dirk. Hello Dirk!

Dirk – Hi Sebastian and you’re looking excited, you like our topic today?

Sebastian – I am very excited because I am very well prepared to debate today on the following motion: “there should be limits for freedom of speech”. Are we ready to get started? I am ready. I will be against the motion, I will be defending the fact that there should be no limits for freedom of speech, whereas Dirk will be in favour of the motion. Everything is actually a complete flip of the coin including who starts to debate first, not only who was for or against, but also who is starting so I was selected with Dirk’s flip of the coin to start.

Sebastian – Alright, so I’m going to ask you a question, Dirk, that I hope you’ll be able to answer when it is your turn, your two minutes or three minutes: how would you define the red line? How will you define where freedom of speech starts and where it stops? I think everyone is bound to have different opinions on that, and obviously the more autocratic you are as a regime or as a person, the further high up in terms of censorship you will be. So my point here is it’s actually almost impossible to define that red line and therefore we should just have no limits because otherwise everyone will have a different limit. Secondly, hate speech, because I assume this is going to come up very quickly in our conversation, hate speech: I actually would rather hear it, rather than silence it because it will always prevail, it will always exist, and the best way to combat it is to hear all the arguments. In fact, most likely the arguments are very absurd or inept or idiotic but let’s hear them out, let them be in the public realm so that we can actually attack them with sound arguments. And thirdly let’s open our minds. Let’s open minds to contradictory opinions by having this open-mindedness, we’re maybe going to explore different ways of, in the case I was just mentioning about hate speech, about educating people because if we see people keep coming back with the same kind of argument about whatever, let’s say immigration has disastrous effects on the economy, we can demonstrate or we can maybe launch studies which will show that it is actually the reverse, that immigration overall has a positive impact on the economy just to make a reference to our latest debate. So here are my three arguments: first of all, there can be no definition of the red line for freedom of speech. Secondly, we should hear the hate speech to be able to combat it. And thirdly, let’s open our minds to different opinions.

Dirk – So now it’s for me to have my two minutes on my side of the debate, which is I am for limits. Starting the clock now. And starting with an answer to Sebastian’s question. Sebastian asked “where to draw the line? What is actually the limit of freedom of speech if you have any limit at all?” And so I need to start by saying that our free systems and liberties clearly depend on having that line drawn fairly late in the game. So the more freedom, the more liberty of speech we have, the better it is, the better for our discussion processes, the better to make about opinions, the better to deal with things like hate speech as you mentioned. However, if we discuss freedom of speech and the total freedom of speech, we tend to forget that there are limits to pretty much any human right. Freedom of speech is actually guaranteed by the Human Rights Convention but it’s lower in the hierarchy of rights than for instance the freedom of harm or the freedom of movement. So there are natural limits when it comes to harming other people. And the argument can be made that sometimes speaking up is very similar to harming people. For instance, if you ask somebody else to murder someone, you could argue it’s just your freedom of speech and acting, it clearly would be illegal in most countries on this planet, and rightly so. Asking people for murder or promotion of sexual assault or hate speech of certain kind is a danger that can result in very physical results. So there is a limit that we should enforce to avoid these. And it’s a very old argument to make. As far as in this eighteen-hundreds, we had thinkers writing and discussing these limits. For instance, John Stuart Mill suggested to have a harm principle enforced, where we say if something harms others, that’s a clear line. And the article 19 of the Human Rights Convention basically says whenever freedom of speech endangers national security, the rights of individuals to be unharmed or morale in a broad sense, then we can discuss and debate it and need open clear regulation that tries to to enforce as little limits as possible but limits nonetheless.

Sebastian – I actually agree with you: speech should not be harmful. However, you make a distinction, an implied distinction between silent psychological harm and physical harm. I think there’s no debate as to understanding what is physical harm and indeed every freedom is limited by another freedom. So I think there’s no question that the freedom of speech should not threaten someone’s physical integrity. It’s very easy to define what is physical integrity. I can hurt you physically but psychologically, this is very difficult to define and we come back to the same question. And this is where I have struggled because everyone will have a different assumption or a different way of saying “I’m being harmed psychologically”. In fact, if I go to that point, I could say “well you know what, Dirk, I don’t like your T-shirt, it’s hurting my eyes. I’m hurt psychologically!” so your freedom of expression in this case is actually denying my right to not be hurt. I can invent anything. In fact, if I push the limits here, we could argue if there’s a new religion to come about, I could say my new religion this to ban the colour blue, because it’s against my principles, my religion, or ban the word “German” because “German” would be a bad word. So where does that limit, where can the limit be in this case? So we’re back to the initial point: there can be no limit, because anyone can be sensitive and I’m asking for people to not be that sensitive. Let me give some additional perspectives. It’s the same with jokes: where would be the limits? Everyone has a red line. Jokes could be considered as going beyond the realm of freedom of speech because some people do not find it funny. So we’ve seen this over and over over the past few years with some controversies about cartoons. Some additional points, and I want to bring some specific examples. The Holocaust denial is illegal in many countries: in France and Germany, implicitly or explicitly, but this is only the case in I think 16 countries, but not the UK for instance. And I find this quite interesting. And despite this being illegal, people still deny the Holocaust in our countries – in our countries, I mention France and Germany. And again, I’d rather have this speech be out in the open so we can combat it. Interesting enough, even in Germany where it is implicitly or explicitly illegal depending on the state, there was this interesting example of the NPD, this right-wing party, in 2011 which had posters against immigration: step on the gas or “safe flight home” and actually initially, although they were asked to not use these posters, the Berlin State Court actually said in terms of freedom of speech, it should be allowed. It’s interesting that even in countries where the Holocaust, major crimes and genocides, well actually freedom of speech does prevail in the end. I would have additional examples, but I’m out of time.

Dirk – I’m starting my time now. And I start by telling you that you’re actually recognized the freedom of speech should have limits. In fact, that was your very first statement, because whenever you asked to harm someone individually, that’s a limit right there. And that’s a redline very easy to draw. So rights are limited by other rights that are basically put in hierarchy and here we have one clear red line. Then you opened up a secondary discussion which is a very interesting one, the offence principle that’s called. So the mentioned John Stuart Mill began by saying there should be a harm principle. So one red line is whenever we harm someone individually, that red line should not be overstepped. And then that debate went on towards the offence principle, recognizing that sometimes offending words come very close to physical harms, and that is something that you more or less stated as very free to define, which is in fact not the case. If you ask someone with psychological training, that person could tell you that, in fact, psychological harm can be very real; but that psychological harm is probably very hard to instantiate over a blue T-shirt, although I have to say a blue T-shirt can be very offending depending on the kind of T-shirt we talk about. But it’s very real in terms of other statements. Imagine you’re a Holocaust survivor and someone is in front of you and tells you your whole family never has been killed by the Nazis. That’s a very real, not only offence, it’s probably very painful and harmful for you and therefore those last you mentioned that limit that kind of speech have been in place for that very reason: to avoid harming people that have been very real impacted by the Holocaust. Where that line is to be drawn is dependent on two things. First, what we know about the psychological status of men, so it’s probably not the individual who likes or dislikes blue T-shirts, it’s more like how large parts of the society impacted by it, so that’s a debate to have and that’s a battleground essentially that we need to keep having, that’s a discussion that needs to go on and that’s resulting in laws and regulations that are subject to change all the time. And the second aspect of it is when it comes to real harm, you can measure that. You can really start analyzing that, you can really look into the practice of psychologists and see what real psychological harm can do. And my time is over.

Sebastian – So when I said I recognize there’s a limit, it’s only because there are other freedoms so you actually don’t limit that freedom of speech in itself it’s because there’s bubbles of freedoms which intersect with each other. Still, you don’t give me a definition. You actually provide examples but no definition of a red line, so we can’t proceed by examples. If you want a theorem in maths, as you know, you can’t just proceed by examples. I can give you counter-examples, and this is what I have done, to show you can’t actually define a rigid structure. And in fact making a physical threat is no speech. There’s no logic behind it, no reasoning, it is just a threat, it’s calling for violence, there’s actually no speech behind this. Now I conclude with three things. First of all, if you want to ban specific speeches or types of words, people will use coded language. They will find a way to go around. So you’ll never be able to ban it completely. Secondly, let’s not be arrogant. Let people define for themselves if they want to self-censor or if they want to actually go and deny the Holocaust. They’ll make fools of themselves. And thirdly, and I’ll close off with this, there’s something called the Internet today. How are you going to stop the Internet from having all kinds of speeches online? There’s no way that our law will actually ban anything. So let’s find a way to fight it and let the speech be out there to fight it most effectively.

Dirk – My final statement, starting the clock now. You want a definition? Well, the definition is where the other that right starts and ends. So the definition is: any speech that leads to physical harm is to be banned and the Convention of Human Rights tells you that’s all the matters around national security, personal impact, morale in larger parts of the population. So it’s defining these limits actually. With regards to the Internet, yeah it’s an open field where people say whatever they’re pleased to say, it’s not free of laws. So we can actually enforce laws in the Internet as well, and in fact we keep doing that. So you’re for instance not free to demand sexual abuse of children there, there you have an example, you’re not free to demand, even on rational grounds, to kill certain people. That’s examples of limits that are in place today and accepted and that we should continue enforcing.

Dirk – Now it’s up to our listeners to continue debating: we have a Facebook group, the link is on our page and there you’ll find a link where you can continue voting and continue debating, we look forward to your opinions on this matter which is clearly not an easy one. Sebastian, you look like there’s something to be said?

Sebastian – No! We’ll review the feedback and your comments, and possibly in one of our next next podcasts, we will maybe comment about all this, stay tuned!

Dirk – Alright and then finally please give us feedback, share your opinion, thank you for listening to!

Sebastian – Thank you!

Dirk – Did I mention that I stumble over my own words today? I stumbled over my own words like five times, I’m so annoyed by myself right now.

Sebastian – I think we’ll have to edict a new rule where you give me ten euros for every second you go over your limit.

Sebastian – Your religion is to ban the color “blue” or to ban the word “German” because “German” would be a bad word.

Dirk – What no no no no no no!

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