Monday, July 13, 2015

If we have free speech, how come it's okay to punish us for what we say? [Ask a Philosopher]


Last week, the following letter to the editor appeared in the Grand Forks Herald, my local newspaper:

Is free speech still 'free' if it can be punished?

     I'm in need of a philosopher/ethicist. The Constitution guarantees "free speech." It is an extraordinarily important right that promotes diversity of opinion and is an antidote to dictatorship. 
     Having said that, how is it that whenever someone says something outre or unpopular, say Donald Trump for example, individuals are "allowed" to disenfranchise from him?
     If "free speech" which is allowable, is also allowed to be punished, how does this differ from not having "free speech"? 
     How does withdrawing from a golf tournament either support free speech or do other than implicitly condone punishing it?
     It is easy to make what is technically called "the error of assumed essence"; if a person is, say, "gay," this error happens when everything they do is tied to this "gayness."
     Thank heavens Trump doesn't have a children's charity from which critics can withdraw because of his new "taint."
     Ross Hartsough
     Grand Forks

Seeing as the author asked for a response from a philosopher/ethicist, I felt an obligation to write back. Here is my answer. It was published this morning under the headline "Reactions give free speech its meaning and power."


In a July 10 letter to the editor, Ross Hartsough asked specifically for a philosopher/ethicist to tell him whether free speech is still free if it is punishable. I am a philosopher/ethicist and Director of UND’s own Institute for Philosophy in Public Life, and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to answer his question. Thanks, Ross!

The issue, he says, is that sponsors are withdrawing their support for Donald Trump because Trump is saying “unpopular” things. (Unpopular is Ross’s word; others have used the term “racist.”) But, as Ross writes, “the constitution guarantees free speech.” So, he asks, isn’t punishing Trump a violation of the constitution?

The legal answer is no; the constitution only guarantees protection from government reprisal. It states that “congress shall make no law” abridging freedom of speech. It does not say “Exxon shall make no personnel policy limiting what its employees say” or “The US Open cannot regulate golfer’s public statements.” The first amendment is entirely about protection from an overzealous government, nothing else. Your boss can fire you if she or he finds you morally repugnant. Your friends can stop speaking to you if you say horrible things. Your sponsors can stop associating with you if your personality is bad for their brand. There are exceptions. No one can fire you if they find your religion, race, color, sex, age, disability, pregnancy, status as a veteran or citizen, national origin, familial status, or genetic code morally repugnant, since these are protected classes, but let’s put those aside for now. My point is that I have more legal protection as a Professor at UND than I would at Concordia College because UND is a public school—a government institution—and Concordia is private.

But I’m sure Ross will remind me that legality is different than morality and this is where his question becomes philosophically interesting. Even if it is legal to punish someone, he might ask, isn’t it just wrong to do so? The answer, again, is no. Freedom only means something if it comes with accountability. For liberty to have moral value, it must represent who we are, and we must be willing to accept what comes of our deeds. Liberty must be attached to our identity as citizens, and there has to be a system of rewards and punishments in order to make our acts more than just anarchy or untethered desire. Political ideas always have reciprocal notions: there are no rights without responsibilities. What makes freedom morally valuable are the sacrifices we make for it.


To explain: when Martin Luther King Jr. demanded civil rights, he had moral authority because he was willing to go to jail for them. If he had begged and pleaded his way to exoneration, we wouldn’t respect him nearly as much as we do. Religious Christians believe that what made Jesus’s sacrifice redemptive is that he was willing to die for others’ sins. If he had convinced God to intervene in his crucifixion, he would have been just another prophet. Or, perhaps, to put it in more mundane terms, what makes your friends valuable is that they like what you say, the want to be around you, they think you are worthy of their time. If they ignore your racist comments because you just aren’t that important, then their friendship doesn’t mean very much, does it?


In short, if Donald Trump really believes that most Mexicans immigrants are rapists, shouldn’t he be willing to sacrifice some of his profit in order to spread his message? Isn’t protecting Americans from rape worth the cost, especially if he wants to be President? It would be disrespectful for us not to punish him for his comments because if we didn’t, it would mean that we weren’t taking him seriously as a person.

So, freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom of punishment, Ross. It means freedom from government reprisal and accountability for what we say from everyone else. The problem in Trump’s case is that what he said was false and ignorant. So, he is sacrificing his fortune and respectability for the wrong thing. Philosophers/ethicists like me believe that there is such a thing called Truth and that moral activity that isn’t representative of that truth has no moral worth. Truth and justice go hand and hand. This is the other reason why Dr. King had moral authority. He was right; Trump is wrong. But I’m always glad for the opportunity to bring philosophy off campus and I thank you Ross for calling on a philosopher to address your question. I hope the Herald lets me do it again sometime.


Follow the author on Twitter at: @jackrweinstein
 

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