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Freedom Of Speech Is Primarily The Right For Stupid People To Say Dumb Things (And That’s A GOOD Thing)

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Infopolicy

Infopolicy

Yesterday, a French court decided that people on Twitter have no right to anonymity when posting xenophobic comments. This is deeply troubling: the court says that unpopular opinions don’t have the same protection from freedom of speech as popular ones. Further, and more troubling still, this is a pan-European trend.

The verdict yesterday attempts to force Twitter to hand over the identities of people who made racist and stupid remarks on Twitter. (Whether a French court has jurisdiction over Twitter is another matter.)

It is not disputed that the anti-Semitic remarks in question are easily regarded as plainly disgusting in the eyes of most people: they certainly are. But banning those political opinions is not learning from history: it is repeating the gravest mistakes of history and walking in its dire footsteps.

You never needed a constitution to protect popular people’s right to express popular opinions. When they say dumb things, nobody really minds, either. When stupid people express popular opinions, nobody objects, so no problem. Freedom of Speech exists specifically to protect despicable people who are uttering intolerable opinions, and that’s a vital protection.

As a precondition for functioning freedom of speech, anonymity has always been an important layer of protection for unpopular opinions. Opinions which has always been possible to say in the streets as a means of shaping public opinion, well, those opinions is no longer possible to say without risk of repercussion. That’s a very dangerous development.

Some people would argue that what you can’t say in the streets, you can’t say online. But this argument is a contradiction in terms: the argument is actually pushing for considerably less freedom of speech online. What we have is a situation where somebody said something dumb and irresponsible online, and was punished by having their anonymity broken. The offline equivalent would be that anybody could be required to produce a photo ID in the streets when they said something that somebody else didn’t like, and so, could be required to produce photo ID at any time. It is the equivalent of a papiere, bitte society.

You could easily observe how important anonymity is for awful, even seriously criminal, opinions. To take a high-profile example, the famous pamphlets arguing for the independence of the then-British colonies in North America were published anonymously. This was high treason against the British Crown, and not punishable by a fine, but by torturous death. If anonymity had not been possible at the time, the United States of America would not exist today.

Anonymity is a vital layer of protection for advancing society by challenging dogma through publishing opinions that were unpopular at the time, but turned out to be right.

Banning and punishing unpopular opinions, such as xenophobic expressions, is not learning from history. It is repeating the gravest of history’s mistakes.

We have learned in a horrible way that the antidote to trolls isn’t banning them into the caves. It has always been sunlight. The answer to threats to democracy can never, ever, be censorship, that is itself a graver threat to democracy. Rather, it must be sunlight, it must be openness. It must be more discussion, not less.

Today, there is a line where you can commit a crime by inciting another specific crime, and that might be a reasonable line to draw. But uttering political opinions, no matter how despicable or discriminatory, is still uttering political opinions.

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About The Author: Rick Falkvinge

Rick is the founder of the first Pirate Party and is a political evangelist, traveling around Europe and the world to talk and write about ideas of a sensible information policy. He has a tech entrepreneur background and loves whisky.

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27

  1. 1

    If it’s possible to punish people who express xenophobic opinions, then I also want to punish those who express the opinion to give grades to children at lower ages, as I’m offended by that.

  2. [...] Freedom Of Speech Is Primarily The Right For Stupid People To Say Dumb Things (And That’s A GO… (falkvinge.net) [...]

  3. 2
    Fairglow

    I’m severely offended by people trying to limit other peoples freedom of speech and consider it to be a form of hate speech against dumb people.

  4. 3
    Anonymous

    you have to remember that speech is only stifled when the truth is being spoken by the ordinary people about the rich, the famous or those in power!

  5. 4
    Max Pont

    True indeed. Either we have freedom of speech or we don’t. Defending freedom of speech is only important when it comes to defending controversial, repulsive, or false speech. That is when we need to step up and defend the fundamental principles of an open democratic society. What the majority and the power holders considers to be “reasonable” and “balanced” speech need no extra protection as that is uncontroversial.

    Therefore I think that the Pirate Parties around the world (in particular the German Piratenpartei) work for abolishing laws that limits free speech. In particular the German legal ban on Holocaust Denial. The German Piratenpartei is the polar opposite of the neo-nazis who spread lies about the Holocaust. No one could accuse the German Piratenpartei of having some hidden agenda.

    Holocaust Denial is an absurd pack of malicious lies. However, it is not by itself hate-speech and it is not an explicit urge to incite violence on others. Even though I detest Nazism and everything it stands for, their rights to propagate their lies should be protected as free speech. The argument that Nazism is so horrible and malicious that the principle of free speech should be abolished in this case is exactly why it should be protected by free speech. If we can abolish free speech for Nazism people in power might argue that something else is so bad that free speech should abolished – just in this case. And then we are on the slippery slope towards a totalitarian society.

    Pirates should unite on defending free speech.

    • 4.1
      Colin

      There’s a relevant case in the UK at the moment. Liberal Democrat MP David Ward, after signing a Holocaust memorial book, went on to say that the Jews (I think technically he meant the Israeli government) should stop abusing the Palestinians. Sounds a perfectly reasonable idea to me. But tomorrow (28 Jan 13) he must face his party managers to explain his remarks. Looks like the thought police are alive and well amongst Britain’s Lib Dems.

    • 4.2
      Scary Devil Monastery

      I’ve said for a long time that society needs to hear the nazis spewing their propaganda, religious extremists trying to peddle their hysteric gibberish, and racists howling their agenda of hate.

      Why?

      Because it is how a society vaccinates itself. Deprived of such inoculation we humans are all too eager to fall for the carefully packaged statement that perhaps some people might not be as much worth as others.

      I was surprised to see that Rowan Atkinson said exactly this in his adress against the law/proposal in the UK which makes free speech conditional on anyone not taking offense. Terrible for any comedian, of course.

      Sweden has has nazis and closet racists organized in political parties for a long time. But they could gain no headway until we banned their members from wearing swastikas. At that point they grew and now sit in our parliament.

      The same holds true elsewhere.

  6. 5
    Brian

    That is true to a degree but the problem is when it falls into libel, threats, defamation, and other illegal activites. A good case and point is 90 percent of the content on an American site called Topix. They cross the line way too often and then justify it.

  7. [...] criminal to day today may be very different tomorrow — and vice-versa.Embedded Link Freedom Of Speech Is Primarily The Right For Stupid People To Say Dumb Things (And That’s A GOOD T… Yesterday, a French court decided that people on Twitter have no right to anonymity when posting [...]

  8. 6
    Mullvad user

    Are you blocking the Swedish IP addresses on Mullvad VPN anonymizing service from commenting here?

    I have tried to comment several posts days ago, comments not containing anything that would warrant removal, but they still haven’t showed up.

    Now I am trying a Netherlands address instead.

    These addresses are used by many people, so if you block because someone is trolling, you are also blocking others.
    There are two Swedish addresses, I don’t remember them entirely but they both begin with 46. and one ends in .26 and the other in .29

  9. 7
    mijj

    > Freedom Of Speech Is Primarily The Right For Stupid People To Say Dumb Things

    .. and especially when it turns out later that a lot of those dumb things weren’t so dumb after all.

  10. 8
    Thomas54

    Leaving possible libel issues to one side, freedom of speech is vital for the well-being of society. If people want to say offensive things, let them. If false claims are made, let others refute them. Let the fools make fools of themselves and sink into obscurity. On the other hand, if the remarks turn out to be wise, all to the good.

    The question is similar to that posed the ReformSection5 campaign in the UK: who decides what is and is not offensive? Where is the line drawn? Far better to allow offensive remarks and let people be offended. So often, it is the publicity resulting from legal action against offensive speech that brings it to the attention of the offended.

  11. 9
    Anonymous

    check out what the French courts have just decided to do as far as speech is concerned. i thought Sarkozy was a complete prick. it looks like Hollande isn’t much different. now he’s in power, in typical politician way, he has gone back on a lot of what he was going to improve on, including Hadopi, and allowing certain groups to dictate what can and cant be said. censorship is getting a good hold in many societies now. it is going to be a hell of a job to remove it and get freedom of speech, freedom of expression, privacy and other things back now. what the US entertainment industries tried to achieve and what was on the cards in the EU (SOPA/PIPA, ACTA etc) may have been slowed but they are now being introduced one part at a time. the people seem to think that when the bills themselves were thrown out, it was the end. they need to wake up again because the rich and famous are continuing in the same way as before, just a small step at a time now, but the end result will be the same. the people will end up being well and truly fucked, as usual!!

  12. 10
    Thorsten

    I am very much for free speech, but when it comes to racism, I think there is a border. The border is there because minorities also have their right to freedom. Racist hate crimes are real and when stupid people affirm each other in their hatred, it can have terrible consequences. We have to be very careful that censoring is not misused by the governments, thats why I voted for the pirate party in Berlin. But I am very much for censoring racist hate.

    • 10.1
      Anyone

      racists should be called out, but they still should have the right to say what they want to say

      if it is an actual crime such as bodily harm etc. you should of course do something against it.
      but as long as they are just talking, let them spew their idiocy

      the answer to racism should never be censorship, but education

    • 10.2
      Buglord

      I made a good argument against your case but a very minor race could possibly have gotten slightly offened by it so it was censored.

      • 10.2.1

        Ok, a couple of important things here:

        1) I do not censor. I decide what to publish. It is censorship when the government decide what I get to publish or not – when the government stands in-between two consenting parties to communication. Do not misuse the word as that robs its of its very serious meaning.

        2) There are spam filters installed here (as on mostly every other WordPress). They are automated as they has to chew through a shitload of junk on an hourly basis. Sometimes, they get it wrong. I check the spam folder every other day or so to see if something legit got stuck, and usually clear a handful of comments manually.

        3) Political opinion is not disallowed here, obviously. It is encouraged. But being rude to other commenters and sabotaging the discussion is frowned upon. This is detailed in the troll policy that I adopted a couple years back.

        I haven’t seen your comment, so I can’t comment on that specifically, but I thought this was important to point out.

        Cheers,
        Rick

        [Update: Interestingly, this very comment got caught in the spam filter. Four false spams in the last three days, this was one of them.]

        • Anyone

          I think he meant self-censorship and meant the comment as tongue-in-cheek

          but sarcasm is hard to transport in pure text form

        • Ano Nymous

          I have had problems getting any WordPress comment field to work in the last few weeks. Less than a week ago this one started working again, and yesterday others started working too.

          Maybe it’s the same problem.

    • 10.3

      I am very much for free speech, but when it comes to racism, I think there is a border.

      If you are in favor of that free speech which you find acceptable, then by definition, you are not in favor of free speech.

    • 10.4
      Max Pont

      @Thorsten, about your wish to abolish free speech for racism, please listen to what the far left winger and anti-racist Noam Chomsky had this to say about free speech:

      “If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like. Goebbels was in favor of freedom of speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re in favor of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.”

      “If we don’t believe in free expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

  13. 11
    harveyed

    Well racism is bad, and such is of course all hate. But really nothing gets any better if said minorities are marginalized. Instead they will get increased emotional support if media are allowed to monpolarly bash them over and over. This has happened in Sweden. I will not be surprised if the latest half-year systematic media-bashing of the “swede democrats” will give them an all time high in the next year vote. Not because people actually are racists – but because people really dislike bullying – and everyone even remotely intelligent will understand that this media polarization is really nothing but systematic bullying.

  14. 12
    Ano Nymous

    This is a test of the Comment Field function. Please remove when no longer needed (feb 3 2013 01:00AM).

  15. 13

    Remember that no-one has absolutely unrestricted free speech. For example the laws of defamation are a restriction of free speech. I can assure you that once you become the victim of defamation you are grateful for these laws because generally there is no other recourse.

    Another example is that of laws restricting hate speech. Here, in South Africa, we have laws restricting hate speech. The unexpected beneficiary of these laws has been the white people. The laws have protected us from rampant, hateful attacks that could quickly have escalated into real and widespread violence. You need to understand we are a violent country with nearly the highest rate of homicide in the world.

    Which brings me to my main point, that the level of free speech tolerated is dependent of the level of sophistication and maturity of the populace. Here in SA we restrict hate speech because of our country’s history and the prevailing unstable conditions. In the same way nazi-speech in Europe was restricted after WWII because of the conditions at that time. Of course that time has long passed and those restrictions are plainly archaic today. In the same way the need for hate speech laws in SA will fall away in some time in the future. For the moment though, I can assure you we are very grateful for their protection.

  16. [...] Participation citoyenne et liberté d’expression : Voyez ici et ici. [...]

  17. […] On m’objectera qu’il y a un risque de banalisation. C’est possible, mais j’ai l’impression que, de toute façon, c’est déjà le cas ces temps-ci. Les paroles de haine et d’exclusion se sont libérées, ces temps. Et si je n’aime pas les haineux, j’aime encore moins la censure; je vais finir par penser, comme Rick Falkvinge, qu’il est plus rentable à long terme de laisser les cons dire des conneries. […]

  18. […] fait, plus le temps passe, plus je me rallie à l’opinion exprimée, entre autre, par Rick Falkvinge: il ne devrait pas à avoir de limite à la liberté d’expression, même pour les opinions […]

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Rick is the founder of the first Pirate Party and is a political evangelist, traveling around Europe and the world to talk and write about ideas of a sensible information policy. He has a tech entrepreneur background and loves whisky.

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