Skip to content

Galliano, Westboro Baptists, and the question of free speech

Despite the protestations of Albert Sydner, the father of a young soldier killed in Iraq, the American Supreme Court has ruled in favour of the Westboro Baptist’s right to picket military funerals. The religious group has demonstrated at 200 funerals, sporting events, and concerts, claiming that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are god’s way of punishing America for tolerating homosexuality. Their protests are quiet. There is no personal abuse, no threats of force either, and they operate 1,000 feet from the church in which the funeral takes place, under police supervision. They merely hold signs with offensive messages such as “God Hates You” and “God Hates Fags”. No matter how morally outrageous these messages are, the Court has been clear that the picketing is protected by the First Amendment and, therefore, should be allowed. Samuel Alito was the only judge who dissented in the Supreme Court decision. He argued that a commitment to free speech does not license verbal assault. I found myself sharing Alito’s intuitions and that, considering his conservative and libertarian views, put me in an uncomfortable position. So, I asked myself, why do I oppose the Court’s decision? Another piece of news helped me to think through this issue. While the Westboro Baptists were celebrating the verdict, John Galliano was fired for declaring his admiration for Hitler and he will now be prosecuted. These two cases can be compared in several respects, but I will point to two.

One of the things emphasized in the Court’s decision is that “inflicting great pain” does not justify punishing the speaker. Many people may believe that Snyder’s suffering should be taken into consideration, and will, therefore, find the Court’s reasoning obnoxious. I think the Court is right. Subjective attitudes and emotional reactions alone cannot be used to limit our rights. Individuals get upset about all sorts of things and our rights must be able to withstand these assaults, otherwise they will be too weak.

There might, however, be something else going on in both cases. The targets of the Westboro Baptists and Galliano, namely, homosexuals and Jews, are groups that are especially vulnerable because they suffered from discrimination and genocide in the past. If hateful speech against these groups is left unpunished, another wrong will be added to the injustice that we have already committed against them. By condemning these statements we are also condemning past injustice. Our reaction is not so much related to the emotions these hateful statements trigger as much as it is a product of judgments that we, as a community, hold and want to express. This implies two things. First, we should punish certain kinds of speech even if no single member of these vulnerable groups claims to be offended. Second, the same line of reasoning could not justify punishing speech that is harmful but is not directed to an especially vulnerable group. Words might wound taxi drivers, school teachers or bald people but they are not the victims of any historical injustice.

The Court acknowledges that certain statements can hurt, but the verdict makes clear that Americans have chosen to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure a healthy public debate. I find it very hard to see how the question of whether god hates homosexuals or wants to punish a country can be considered a public issue, but let that pass. The reason why we should care about having a free public debate is that it’s an essential feature of a good democracy. We can elaborate two different arguments that link free speech with democracy. The first one is mainly focused on the recipients of the speech. For a democratic system to work we need an informed electorate and by allowing free flow of information people’s knowledge on important issues is likely to increase. The second argument has to do with the speaker and the quality of her arguments. In a “marketplace of ideas” all views are challenged by being confronted with one and other. That forces each speaker to rethink his position and to support it with good reasons.

These are two of the most attractive defenses of freedom of speech although it’s quite difficult to fit the cases mentioned in this line of reasoning. People’s knowledge in no way increases when they are exposed to falsehoods or biased personal opinions like “women are inferior”. On the contrary, someone who is raised in false beliefs is likely to have a distorted view of reality. One could say though, that the other argument still works. Hateful speech forces us to provide better arguments in favour of our convictions. It is strange to say that we need someone telling us that “blacks are slaves” in order to strengthen our moral belief that all human beings are equal. We are all fully aware of what slavery was and meant and we can always bring examples of what we did in order to teach future generations the value of equality. To take for granted that blacks are equal and not to consider their status as an open question that has to be discussed in the public sphere is a sign of our moral progress. Britain, France and most other European countries punish racial or anti-Semitic speech – like Galliano’s – and their democratic systems don’t seem to suffer because of that. To put it differently, surely there is a lot of room for improvement in our democratic systems but to allow hateful speech doesn’t go in that direction.

Share on

7 Comment on this post

  1. I don't know as the general outrage against the Westboro Baptist Church is because of their attitude against homosexuality. True, they are perhaps more vulgar than most, but similar attitudes are present among outspoken conservative groups across America, such as Focus on the Family, or leading members of the Christian right such as Pat Robertson (stating that America will be punished for accepting homosexuality by natural disasters and terrorist attacks) and Jerry Falwell ("Gay folks would just as soon kill you as look at you", "this vile and satanic system will one day be utterly annihilated and there'll be a celebration in heaven", "AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals, it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals" and his statement blaming the 9/11 attacks on homosexuality).

    No, I think the reason why the Westboro Baptist Church gets universal condemnation is because they picket against US soldiers.

  2. Christopher Sharples

    A few points:

    “If hateful speech against these groups is left unpunished, another wrong will be added to the injustice that we have already committed against them”

    1. Have we really inflicted these injustices, or did our ancestors? I take the gist of your question to be: should we restrict speech based on the historical context, which is the purpose of the Volksverhetzung law in Germany, for example?

    As far as the German case goes I am sceptical about whether these laws have really tackled the problem of hate speech, or the prevalence of neo-Nazi groups (at least 60 years after Nuremberg). Such groups continue to exist and have often adopted symbolism which is Nazi-like but not technically prosecutable. Hence, this activity has gone underground and persists. Of course, the practical issue of banning speech has not been discussed. Evidently, the banning of Nazi speech has not eradicated it from the German discourse.

    Christopher Hitchens has written much on the case of David Irving, which he cites for its especially”unintended consequences”. Unintended consequences which have actually undermined the position of many holocaust deniers.

    Of course, Hitchens has himself been called a holocaust-denier for his moderate position of defending free spech, an Ad Hominem abused by Henry Kissinger when he was himself the target of a pointed critique by Hitchens. Thus such labels cease to possess their correct meaning.

    This highlights another interesting point. Does outlawing speech on the fringes risk punishing those who make their claims out in the open and with at least a modicum of transparency, whilst leaving the worst purveyors of lies and distortions to hide in the shadows?

    “It is strange to say that we need someone telling us that “blacks are slaves” in order to strengthen our moral belief that all human beings are equal.”

    2. Of course, John Stuart Mill has something to say on this in On Liberty. Essentially, if we are not confronted with opposition to our most commonly held beliefs then, as you say, we will not be able to “provide better arguments in favour of our convictions”, and understand the real meaning of our hatred of hate speech.

    It does not conflict with the rest of Mill’s thesis that speech that constituting an incitement to violence (he refers to inciting a mob in particular) can be restricted on the basis that it will violate the Harm Principle. Mill’s well-known arguments are summarised here:

  3. Harassment by religious extremist

    Jehovah's Witnesses instigated court decisions in 1942 which involved cursing a police officer calling him a fascist and to get in your face at the door steps,….this same JW 1942 court decision upheld infamous Phelps hate church in 2011
    Danny Haszard

  4. "Britain, France and most other European countries punish racial or anti-Semitic speech – like Galliano’s – and their democratic systems don’t seem to suffer because of that."

    Indeed, and I think this leads to two questions: 1. Is that because the effect is too minor to be noticeable, and the "marketplace of ideas" principle still holds, or is there something wrong with the principle? 2. If the former, is the ban still justified?

    In relation the first question I think both may be true: it may be that the effect of the bans on democracy in these countries is negative, but just too small to be noticeable, but I also think there's something wrong with the principle if taken to an extreme. Just like any other market, the ideas market needs to be regulated. We don't allow restaurants to serve toxic food on the grounds that the food market will self-regulate, so why do we allow people to spew out toxic ideas?

  5. I think we have to be honest: recent advances in the understanding of human irrationality have definitively put to rest the "marketplace" metaphor for ideas. Monkeys like us just don't work that way.

    The reason the Westboro folk outrage so many – even those who share their opinion of same-sex attraction – is that their behavior violates social norms for showing disapproval. We have carefully calibrated methods for censure and punishment. "Decent" people have internalized these. The Westboro folk break all these rules, which is considered even worse than the same-sex attraction they protest. Our society won't work without adherence to these careful norms, so others seek to punish the Westboro people – the entire elaborate architecture of censure is at stake here, which is more important than just the item of homosexuality.

  6. Thank you all for your comments. I don’t have responses to all but I would like to clarify the following points:

    Christopher, the question of collective responsibility is, indeed, a very important and tricky one, particularly when it involves more than one generation because we need to find ways to talk about a community. However, I don’t think I have to deal with this problem here. I could say that by allowing this sort of speech another wrong will be added to an injustice that the group in question already suffered. I think that my point still holds if we say that our ancestors –not us- committed the injustice. Banning that kind of speech is a way of condemning their acts.

    As far as I am aware, the reasons I offer here to punish hateful speech are independent and compatible with Mill’s argument that justifies punishment when speech incites violence.

    Peter, what I mean when I say that “Britain, France and most other European countries punish racial or anti-Semitic speech – like Galliano’s – and their democratic systems don’t seem to suffer because of that" is that when this kind of speech is not allowed we don’t really miss anything, i.e. our public debate does not get worse. Of course, I agree that the “marketplace of ideas” has to be regulated, but we need a criterion to identify what you call toxic speech and I tried to provide one that does not depend on emotions and subjective attitudes.

Comments are closed.