If there was ever a case for limiting free speech....

Source: Wikimedia Commons . Rich communication is surely a capacity of humans that has allowed them to become the preeminent species on ...

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Rich communication is surely a capacity of humans that has allowed them to become the preeminent species on this planet.  Protecting our ability to communicate openly and safely is therefore a marker of a successful society. That's why "freedom of speech" is considered so important to so many people.

But when free speech undermines the well-being of a society, then that speech must be tempered.  Some speech is very obviously forbidden: slander, libel, various kinds of "hate speech," and so on.  Free speech is not unfettered even in the most open societies.

The real question isn't whether some speech acts are to be forbidden, but rather which acts are to be forbidden.

Here's one easy case: demonstrably intentional lies.

And here's an excellent example: a revolting screed of pseudo-scientific putrefaction and outright lies.  The so-called article is dressed up like a medical article and claims that herd immunity from vaccination isn't real.  The article is so utterly wrong, so egregiously fake, that there is only one possible explanation: that in spite of the truth - the readily available, exquisitely researched, and eminently well-explained truth - the author of this post actually intends to cause harm.  I suppose there is some possibility that the author is mentally ill, but that would be up to medical experts to determine.  And whether the author is sane or a complete whack-job in no way diminishes the harm caused by the article.

People will read this article, and people will believe it.  Its falsehoods will spread like a disease, infecting the thoughts of more and more people.  It will be recycled and referenced, cited and spread in different forms but always with the same deadly message.

It will taint people's beliefs. Beliefs inform action.  A false belief will eventually lead to a harmful action.  There is no question that, if left unchecked, such disgusting ideas will cause harm and even death.

Furthermore, these lies are tarted up to appear as legitimate articles reporting statements by experts.  This blatant misrepresentation is a further deception which to a segment of the population will give the sense of a lack of scientific consensus. This undermines the public trust in a society's institutions.  Especially in the case of the health care system, this will undoubtedly lead to even more suffering and death.

Conversely, the systemic benefits to both society and individual that would accrue by eliminating these kinds of lies are substantive, pervasive, and long-term.

How might we decide what kind of statements are to be excluded from free speech protection? It shouldn't be too difficult.  Some criteria would include:

  • a demonstrated opportunity to access accurate information from reliable sources;
  • a demonstrable capacity to understand the information;
  • a pattern of having been informed of erroneous utterances yet continuing to make those utterances;
  • and several others I've not yet thought of.
Is this censorship?  Yes, it is.  So what?  We censor ourselves all the time.  We do so because of the social and personal benefits that accrue.  There's nothing wrong with that, so long as those benefits continue to accrue.  Censorship becomes malevolent only when it undermines those benefits.

A society is more than just a collection of individuals.  A society is a system, with emergent properties that feed back to those individuals in closed loops.  What benefits individuals can benefit society and vice versa, but only when the full systemic implications of that feedback is acknowledged and understood.  So self-censorship is not enough, because self-censorship cannot account for those feedback loops.

Thus, it becomes necessary - for everyone's benefit - to create dampening feedback loops that prevent errors from propagating within the system in ways no single individual can foresee and control on their own.  One of those dampening feedback loops is created by carefully limiting the extent of free speech by recognizing the responsibility of having such freedom, and by ensuring appropriate consequences are imposed on the abuse of that freedom.

And that's why demonstrably intentional lies must be excluded from free speech protection.



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The Trouble with Normal...: If there was ever a case for limiting free speech....
If there was ever a case for limiting free speech....
The Trouble with Normal...
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