Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The benefits of free speech illustrated: Rep Sally Kern(R)

I'm a strong supporter of freedom of expression. I believe that expressing even the most vile, hateful idea serves an important purpose in allowing the rest of us to see for ourselves just how vile and hateful an idea it is. This puts me at odds with people who support putting restrictions on "hate speech" and "villification".

Much buzz has accompanied the public airing of a tape of Oklahoma Representative Sally Kern saying some truly appalling things about homosexuality and gay people in general. Her subsequent two-pronged defense is interesting in what it reveals about free speech issues.

In the first instance, she insists in an interview with a local Oklahoma news outfit called that she
is just exercising her right to free speech:"What is wrong with me as an American exercising my free speech rights on a topic that is a very big issue today?" she asks. Absolutely nothing, says I. Everyone should have the opportunity granted by her free speech rights to hear what she has to say if she thinks that it's such an important issue for her to comment upon.

Yet funnily enough, Rep Kern herself doesn't see it that way. In fact she's very unhappy that her statements have been given the wide audience that such a "very big issue" would presumably deserve: "Shame on the person who didn't have the courage to come and say, 'I'm going to tape you and put it out on YouTube,'" she opines.

She wants to speak out on an important issue, but she compains when people actually hear what she says?

The idea of free speech in JS Mill's formulation of the concept is that it is a free people themselves, not their government representatives, that is best suited to judging the merit (or lack thereof) of an idea, through ongoing public discussion amongst each other. Good ideas will tend to rise up, bad ideas will tend to be discarded. It doesn't take too much thought to view something like "homosexuality is more of a threat than terrorism" as a bad idea.

It is very telling that Rep Kern, for all her protestations about free speech, is unhappy with her statements being subject to the scrutiny of that marketplace of ideas. It tells me that she knows her statements won't stand up to that scrutiny. She might view this as evidence of a "homosexual agenda" working against her, but I would say that it is an example Rep Sally Kern rejecting the belief that the benefits of freedom of expression are valid ones: the principle of freedom of expression allows noxious and paranoid ideas like the ones held and promulgated by Rep Kern to be publicly seen for what they are, and publicly rejected. That can't sit well with her.

It is the broad distribution of this speech, not the restriction of it, that has best served the cause of gay rights here. It is a commitment to the principles of freedom of expression through public exposure and condemnation of noxious ideas, not a commitment to the restriction of freedom of expression through banning of "hate speech" and "villifying" speech, that best serves the cause of gay rights in general. Or so I believe.

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