This week, Anjem Choudary was convicted in the UK for supporting ISIS. He is facing up to 10 years in prison. I am not familiar with all the details of the case. Maybe he did more than just preach. But apparently a lot of is crime consists of preaching hate. He was vocally supporting ISIS and was preaching death to its enemies.
This is a good opportunity to reflect on how far free speech should go? Should there be any limits? Should we therefore care if someone like Anjem Choudary, undoubtably a not very nice human being, is being sent to prison?
So far, my own attitude towards free speech is probably best describes by the English saying “sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt me”. That is to say, words in and off itself do not cause any damage. Therefore, they can hardly be a crime.
I believe that everyone is responsible for their own actions. Just because someone tells me to hate or commit a violent crime does not mean that I have to do it. It is my own choice and therefore my own responsibility if I act on someone’s proposal. Therefore, the person making the proposal is not responsible for my actions. To argue otherwise is to assume that there is a deterministic relationship between the words and my actions.
However, it seems that this argument leads to some unpleasant results. Say I advertise this job opening. “Looking for someone to kill Donald Duck, living at XY. Offer £50 000 reward”. Is this speech or a crime? It seems that the same principle from our argument above applies here. No one has to take up my offer to kill Donald Duck. There are no costs involved with ignoring it. By costs I mean, no one is worse off after rejecting my offer than he was before. Sure £50 000 seems like a big incentive. But so what? It seems foolish to deny that a good speech can incentivise people. If speech could not motivate people, then ideas would be worthless. And if ideas are worthless then who cares about free speech anyway? If an incentive is the only thing that matters, then it seems we might also have a good argument against hate speech.
The way I see it is that if you offer someone money to murder a person, you are involved in the crime. Certainly, the biggest responsibility lies with the killer. But allowing people to hire killers with impunity for themselves seems like a foolish policy to me. And I am willing to bet that I am not the only one who feels that way.
If that is true than I am not sure if it is correct to say that there is no kind of determinism between someone’s speech and someone’s actions. Let us say a guru of a cult is preaching violence to his followers. His followers see him as an authority and are likely to act on his demand. And the guru himself knows that this is the case. It is difficult to argue that such a guru does not bare at least some responsibility when his followers go out and commit crimes.
This of course was the case in the famous murder cases of Charles Manson. The Manson Family, as his little cult was called, committed some extremely brutal murders that shocked America at the end of the 60s. Charles Manson is currently still serving 9 life sentences for conspiracy of murder. The thing is, he did not actually take part in any of the murders. He just instructed his followers to do so. So does anyone want to argue that Charles Manson has been imprisoned unjustly for the last few decades?
It seems to me that the argument that there cannot be any determinism between someone’s speech and another person’s actions does not hold. Speech is too powerful for that. So is there maybe another argument in favour of free speech?
My argument is that free speech is the best weapon against hate speech. If we are arguing in favour of censorship, we will need to give someone the power to censor. History tells us that giving someone that power is very dangerous. The danger is that it makes debating very difficult. If you threaten people to not make certain arguments, you are poisoning the environment in which debate takes place. You are biasing the debate towards certain ideas. And these ideas are more likely than not going to be false ideas.
In France, it is a crime to deny that what Turkey did to the Armenian’s a century ago was not a genocide. In Turkey it is a crime to say that it was a genocide. Both sides claim to censor in order to prevent false and dangerous ideas from spreading. At least one of them has now certainly achieved the opposite.
People with the truth on their side tend to not fear debate. Because debating is the process of debunking false ideas. And it is the sharpest weapon there is against the latter. Much sharper than any censorship could ever be. So the tested solution to stop dangerous and false ideas is liberty. The track record of censorship is the opposite. It is helping false ideas to spread.
Still, I am inclined to think that it is legitimate to hold someone responsible who motivates people to commit very concrete violent crimes. At the very least, he is responsible after the crimes have been committed. How responsible needs to be determined on a case by case basis. Someone carelessly throwing away a remark about killing someone in a side sentence is certainly not as responsible as the cult guru explicitly instructing his followers.
If we need free speech in order to have an open debate, this limitation does not seem to do any damage. Ordering a crowd to commit a crime is not really an act of debate. But for that to be true, it needs to be very concrete. Because censorship itself is very dangerous, the line needs to be drawn as far in favour of freedom as possible. However, a complete freedom of speech, saying whatever you like, whenever you like, without ever having to fear any responsibility for the actions or your audience seems to lead to unpleasant results at times. The test is probably when someone starts giving people concrete instructions to commit a crime with the clear and justified hope that his audience is going to act on it. Unless someone can show me why I am wrong, a complete freedom of speech seems impracticable to me.