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Friday, 23 December 2011

Freedom of Speech?

I recently found an interesting article on "Freedom of Speech" on the Ludwig von Mises Institute blog. The article raises a number of very interesting pints with which I find myself in heart agreement. All to often in our present age, the term "Freedom of Speech" has come to mean exactly the opposite. "You may speak as long as what you say is politically correct and everyone else agrees with you" has become the apparently accepted norm. It has also been taken to mean being able to deny anyone you disagree with the right to say what they think or present their views, but this is emphatically NOT what real "Freedom of Speech" is.

The Occupy Wall Street protesters were allowed to remain in New York's Zuccotti Park for two months, against the will of its private owners. They were clearly trespassers, indeed, much worse than garden variety trespassers, who almost always quickly leave. They were there prepared to stay indefinitely. In effect, they were literally attempting to steal the park from its lawful owners.
Nevertheless, they were allowed to remain, in the belief that to eject them would somehow constitute a violation of their freedom of speech. They had seized the park in order to denounce capitalism. Ejecting them, would have ended their use of the park for that purpose and thus, according to virtually everyone with a public voice, from New York's Mayor to the lowliest media reporter, would have violated their freedom of speech.
This concept of "the right to prevent or obstruct someone else in the exercise of their rights" is a recent one. It began in the 1960s with the student "sit-ins" and sometimes forcible ejections of lecurers they didn't like from classes and even from their posts. It is now a very useful tool of the Left in obstructing the promulgation of anything they don't want made public or given any space anywhere. The classic example has to be the vilification of Enoch Powell and the manner he was branded and hounded throughout the remainder of his life.
A major lesson to be learned from the occupation is that hardly anyone nowadays understands the meaning of freedom of speech. Contrary to the prevailing view, freedom of speech is not the ability to say anything, anywhere, at any time. Actual freedom of speech is consistent withrespect for property rights. It presupposes that the speaker has the consent of the owners of any property he uses in speaking, such as the land, sound system, or lecture hall or radio or television studio that he uses.
 The various "Occupy ...." movements have adopted the tactic of denying the rightful owners of various things their right to the use of their property and argue that preventing them from carrying out what amounts to a breach of the law of property use as well as denying the other side the right to speak is a "breach of their 'Freedom of Speech.'"
Nevertheless, by the logic of the prevailing view of freedom of speech, protesters in the future will be able to storm into lecture halls and/or seize radio and television stations in order to deliver their message and then claim that their freedom of speech is violated when the police come to eject them, even though the police in such cases would in fact be acting precisely in order to uphold the freedom of speech. Indeed, since the days of the so-called Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, back in the 1960s, disruptions of speeches delivered by invited guests have occurred repeatedly on college campuses, in the name of the alleged freedom of speech of the disrupters. No attention has been paid to the actual violation of the freedom of speech of the invited speakers.
There is a fundamental problem with this view. Protesters have a right to express their views, but this does NOT include preventing anyone else from expressing theirs.
The prevailing view of freedom of speech is a major threat to freedom of speech. Not only does it provide justification for actual violations of freedom of speech of the kinds just mentioned, but it also makes freedom of speech appear to be a fundamental enemy of rational communication. Speakers cannot address audiences, professors cannot lecture to students if disrupters are permitted to drown them out and then hide behind the claim that they do so in the name of freedom of speech. If the prevailing view of freedom of speech were correct, the ability of speakers to speak and professors to lecture would require accepting the principle of the need to violate freedom of speech.
I find myself in complete agreement with the final paragraph of the von Mises article.
Upholding freedom of speech and rational communication requires a policy of no tolerance for the occupation of property against the will of its owners. Any such occupation is in violation of the owners' freedom, including their freedom of speech. Protester-occupiers are enemies of freedom, including, above all, freedom of speech.

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