The Limits of Free Speech

Are we free to speak anything we want? Even for free speech advocates like me, there are some limits to speech. So where do we draw the line?

Let me give you some example cases.

1. Ordering someone to murder another person.

2. Shouting “Fire!” falsely in a crowded theater.

These cases are not protected forms of speech. You are not free to commit acts like these, and the reason is clear. Ordering a murder causes harm to the murdered person (obviously), and shouting fire may cause the crowd to panic and stampede, leading to injury and even death. The principle is that you are not free to speak when your speech will cause a demonstrable harm to another person.

Now contrast it with the following examples.

1. Blaspheming against a religion

2. Lese-majeste

These two latter cases are closely related. Religious fundamentalists and royalists revere a sacred institution, and they want to restrict any speech that they deem insulting, disrespectful or offensive to their holy person. They claim that their hurt feelings is a sufficient reason to restrict free speech.

However, there is a problem with their reasoning. Imagine for a moment that I worship Mickey Mouse as the most holy and sacred being. Using the exact same reasoning as the royalists, I want to ban everything that I consider disrespectful to Mickey Mouse. This includes photoshopped pictures and disparaging comments. Also, saying you don’t like Mickey Mouse is also very offensive, both to me and to Mickey himself.

(Once Mickey’s fans get their way, all the supporters of singers/actors/everything else will be clamoring for the right to keep haters silent as well. What will happen then, when we can’t say a bad word about Justin Bieber or Twilight?)

At this point, some royalists may say that they don’t respect Mickey Mouse. Congratulations! You’ve finally gotten the point. If you can make me worship your sacred institution, then I can certainly make you worship Mickey Mouse.

The conclusion is that speech should be restricted when it harms other people, but hurt feelings do not count. If you disagree with this conclusion, you are being very disrespectful. You’ve hurt my feelings and deeply offended me. Therefore, I will make you shut up.

How fair does that sound?