Tuesday, March 17, 2015

More on Free Speech

I should have waited one more week before posting my thoughts about free speech versus ethical speech versus practical speech.  The news this week has been chock full of people using their free speech rights to say the stupidest things.  But rather than condemn what they said, I want to use them as strawmen to continue this discussion.

First, consider the comments by Dolce & Gabbana.  They are a pretty famous same sex couple.  You might assume that they have progressive views about same sex couples having children.  But they came out against it.  They are from traditional Italian families where the idea seemed somehow wrong.

The most controversial thing they said was that using IVF to enable a same sex couple to have a baby created a “synthetic” child.  Wow did they take flack for that comment!  Dozens of celebrities (the only people who can afford D&G clothing) said they were going to toss all of their D&G clothing.  Elton John was first and loudest.  He created a hashtag and started the boycott campaign.  But he was definitely not the last.  D&G responded in the somewhat usual fashion.  They said they were only speaking about their own views.  Just for them as traditional Sicilians.  They weren’t commenting on what other people should do or have done.  But that of course makes no sense.  If they would consider an IVF child they personally conceived as “synthetic” then of course they would think the same of others. 

They also defended themselves by saying they were only exercising their right to free speech.  A lot of “experts” came out in support of this view, so this is the point I want to discuss. They absolutely have the right to express their views on the subject.  But that doesn’t mean they should in fact express them.  Free speech means that there should be no government sanction of what they said. They should not be put in jail nor should there be any civil fines.  On the other hand, we are equally free to exercise our own freedom of speech to condemn what they said, their ideas, and to recommend to all of our networks to also condemn them.  We can exercise our freedoms by boycotting the purchase of any D&G goods and services.  We can let social Darwinism take its natural course.  By supporting D&G’s freedom of speech, their ideas become known.  We can thereby condemn them, stop purchasing from them, put them out of business, and hopefully help to bring forward the day when such ignorant ideas disappear.  Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from condemnation of what you say.  Just imprisonment for it.

A somewhat harder case is the University of Oklahoma fraternity that was caught singing an incredibly racist song.  This is much more repugnant for a variety of ideas.  More people were involved.  It was at a place of higher learning where small “l” liberalism should flourish.  Acceptance and open-mindedness is very important. 

These students also have a right to free speech.  They should not be jailed nor subject to civil fines for singing a racist song.  And as with D&G, we can immediately use our own rights to free speech to condemn them.  In fact, the publicity around the song makes us aware of the values that this fraternity espouses and we can act accordingly.  That is a good thing.

But the University of Oklahoma is a state school, which means it is a quasi-governmental organization.  So I have mixed thoughts about what steps the school should take.  Part of me thinks that as a state school they should not take action against the individuals or their speech (by expelling them).  Governmental organizations should not be involved in preventing or punishing speech.  On the other hand, taking steps against the organization (the fraternity) would be OK because it is a campus organization, with the implicit support of the school.  But another part of me thinks that because schools can only be effective if they support an open platform for ideas, they have a responsibility to prevent/punish speech that would detract from the open exchange by making other students feel unwelcome.

Only the most constrained limitation on speech that is possible that would achieve the goal.  If it is too broad, the punishment rules would constrain more speech than they enable. So what I think I would recommend is to take the two students who were the leaders of the event, who clearly (from my viewing of the video) believe in what was being said in a very visceral sense, and expel them.  I hate to ever close the book on someone, but I don’t think they can be reeducated. 

On the other hand, for the rest of the students, who may not have believed the racist views and were succumbing to peer pressure or perhaps grew up in isolated (it is Oklahoma after all) communities where they didn’t realize the extent of what they were doing.  I am NOT saying to give them a pass, so please hold your flames. But I suspect that expelling them would cause a bitterness that is more likely to lock in their racist perspective.  That makes the situation worse.  It leads them to hide their views and makes it harder to fight them.

What I think might be better is to sentence them to 100 hours of community service tutoring children in a disadvantaged African American community.  Have them learn personally how great those kids are and how the racist views expressed in that song are totally wrong.  Why don’t we try a constructive response that at least makes a little progress towards fighting the problem at its root?

The last example is from Facebook, which recently published a reminder of its policy on free speech.  They reminded users that its terms of service gives them the right and the responsibility to delete posts that contain hate speech or other language that they deem inappropriate.  FB is a private organization, responsible to its shareholders and Board and whatever stakeholders they choose to support (customers, employees, etc).  They have the right to establish whatever terms of service they want for using its service.  If you agree with their terms, you can use their service.  If not, no one is forcing you.  They are subject to some laws, such as being subject to a subpoena or warrant from law enforcement and to prevent copyright infringement. 

But not to allow the same freedom of speech as the government is. (Their international operations are subject to some additional requirements from foreign governments, but that is a topic for another time).  On the other hand, there are ethical requirements and practical calculations that encourage them to have terms of service that restrict socially unacceptable speech as part of the terms of service.  How they balance the social pressure to allow free speech with the social pressure to prevent bigoted speech, bullying speech, or other socially unacceptable speech is a really tough path to navigate. And then balance that with the business objectives of maximizing membership and usage numbers.  I would actually love to have that job, but I am pretty sure they hire lawyers and ethicists for that.  Well, at least lawyers.