Rebirth of Reason

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Saturday, May 30, 2015 - 10:48amSanction this postReply

It is said that free speech does not allow "fighting words," because such words are an incitement to violence and that we have no right to incite violence. Is this true?


It is true that we have no right to incite violence, but what does "inciting violence" really mean? It means to encourage or advocate violence in a situation likely to provoke it. It does not mean to simply make offensive remarks to people who might be expected to respond violently -- which is the definition of "fighting words." Any statement or remark can be construed as fighting words if the person hearing them is sufficiently offended by them.


If such words were not respected under the banner of free speech, then there would be no such thing as free speech, because someone can always take offense at someone else's statement. For example, if I say that the religion of Islam is false, an Islamist could easily construe that as fighting words, and use it as a justification to attack me. Am I therefore responsible for the attack, because I provoked it?


The same is true for racial epithets, such as calling a black person a "nigger." In our society, making that kind of remark could easily be expected to provoke a violent response. Does that mean the response is justified and that such remarks should not be protected under the banner of free speech?


The old saying, "sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me" may not be entirely true, as words can be very hurtful, but the point is that words cannot hurt me physically; they cannot violate my rights. The same is true of "fighting words," which can be very hurtful and offensive, but they cannot harm me physically. They cannot violate my rights.


The view that "fighting words" are an exception to free speech subverts the very foundation of free speech, because any statement can be construed as "fighting words" by someone who is sufficiently offended by it. 

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Saturday, May 30, 2015 - 11:33amSanction this postReply



Well said.  I couldn't agree more.  I'd go on to say that no matter how provocative and outrageous the words spoken, that we can't try to outlaw speaking them without taking the position that those who hear them don't possess choice.  And the legal system, for obvious reasons, must be built upon the assumption that people choose their actions.  Choice versus Force/Fraud/Theft should always be the defining line in moral and legal rights.



People sometimes say that free speech isn't absolute.  That one can be arrested for speech that incites violence, or speech that is part of a con job, or speech in the form of yelling, "Fire" in a crowded theater.  But they miss the point.  People are free to speak the words, but not free of the consequences of those words once spoken.  The crimes are not in the words, but the actions they become a part of.  Think of a get-away driver in some armed robbery.  If the robbery is foiled before they drive the robbers away, before they can get any stolen loot, and before the robbery is even finished, then what are they being arrested for?  Sitting in a car?  They are arrested for being an accomplice to a criminal act - an act where individual rights are violated.  Think of a person that gains money through extortion - through threatening a victim with violence.  They are free to speak the words, but not free of being responsible for the threat the words constitute once spoken.  In WWII there was censorship imposed upon the press and individuals regarding things like ship sailing schedules.  In this case, the declaration of war, and the results of revealing a ships sailing schedule would be the same as aiding the enemy which in the time of war would be the same as joining in initiating violence against our country.


It appears to me that there is no exception to free speech, but rather only cases where speech may be a component of a crime that violates individual rights.  And if the laws are properly concieved and written, then it isn't the speech that is punished, but rather the crime (fraud, extortion, aiding and abetting, etc.)


Imagine a person describing a plan to rob a bank.  The planner does nothing but describe actions to be taken to rob the bank.  Just speech?  No, it is part of a robbery or attempted robbery which is properly illegal since it is a violation of individual rights.  But identical words spoken as part of a script in a movie about a robbery are clearly not part of a real crime.  So, it isn't the words, and it isn't the speaking of them, but rather the intent and the action intended.


That is, I believe, part of the reasoning behind the conditions that must be met before someone can be charged with inciting violence.  The words must immediately be followed by violent actions by specific people who heard the words, and there must persons or property that are damaged by the actions, and there must be an intent that some form of violence be the outcome of the words.  It seems to me that the idea is that the speaker is making themselves like the planner of the robbery, like an accomplice.

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