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Political speech crime

In an article at The conversation  Professor Torcello has proposed that ‘an organised campaign funding misinformation ought to be considered criminally negligent’. I am wholly in agreement with him. I cannot think of a political party whose campaign can be characterised as anything other than an organized campaign funding misinformation and I would be delighted if we could bang them all up in chokey for it and be rid of them. Sorry, what’s that? He wasn’t talking about politicians? Well who was he talking about then?

People who disagree with him about global warming! I see. Hmm…. Do you think he might be persuaded to include the politicians? No. I see. How disappointing….Oh well, many a precious hope is destined to be dashed on the rocks of ill fortune and yet we must soldier on! So, anyway, what’s he on about then?

Apparently, because

Accurately understanding our natural environment and sharing that information can be a matter of life or death. When it comes to global warming, much of the public remains in denial about a set of facts that the majority of scientists clearly agree on. With such high stakes,

we should bang people up who have some money and agree to disagree loudly together.

At least, I take it that that is what he means by ‘organised campaign funding misinformation ought to be considered criminally negligent’. It is, admittedly, a rather odd sentence. Can a campaign be criminally negligent? I thought that criminal negligence was a kind of mens rea, the guilty mind that is necessary for an act to be a crime. So it is a mental state. Events aren’t really the kind of things that are or can have mental states. And I was rather hoping we were after establishing speech crime rather than thought crime (although that too is good, of course). So if he didn’t mean what I said, he should have.

As a motivating example he offers the successful conviction of scientists in Italy for providing “inexact, incomplete and contradictory information” about an earthquake that killed people. I must say, when I heard that news my heart gave a little beat of joy. Who knew Italy had so advanced in such a short time? One minute, Berlusconi and bunga-bunga parties, the next, banging up bunglers.

And it gets better, since apparently they weren’t convicted for what they said but for what they didn’t say.

when the Defence Minister held a press conference saying there was no danger, they made no attempt to correct him.

So you see, the politician who misled people didn’t get convicted but the scientists who didn’t mislead them did. Heh, heh.

Puzzlingly, despite the high stakes and dead people, Professor Torcello doesn’t think

poor scientific communication should be should be criminalised because doing so will likely discourage scientists from engaging with the public at all.

He’s obviously missed the brilliance of the Italian tactic here: if it does discourage them we can encourage them again by punishing them for not saying things as well!

What he wants to criminalize is ‘cases in which science communication is intentionally undermined for political and financial gain’. So bang up people who get votes or paid for disagreeing loudly with scientists. That would have put paid to those mangy politicians and their green energy cronies who intentionally undermined Bjorn’s point that all those windmills make no detectable difference to global warming at 2100!

In case anyone is worried about free speech, Professor Torcello points out

We must make the critical distinction between the protected voicing of one’s unpopular beliefs, and the funding of a strategically organised campaign to undermine the public’s ability to develop and voice informed opinions.

Not sure I really see the difference: if you can’t fund a strategically organised campaign to voice one’s unpopular beliefs what are you going to do? Announce them in your back garden? But heh. Why quibble? There’ll be no difficulty banging up the politicians. Each will  testify that other’s voicing of so-called ‘unpopular beliefs’ is in fact ‘a strategically organised campaign to undermine the public’s ability to develop and voice informed opinions’. And then we’ll get the trade unions and the crony capitalists banged up for funding it all. Heaven!

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1 Comment on this post

  1. It is a curious question, this one. Your snark aside, I don’t find “it’s free speech, innit” arguments convincing at all. Free speech is curtailed in many, many ways (I’m thinking now of restrictions on false advertising and defamation laws). I agree with you that free speech does mean publication. It seems to assume that there exists a realm of discourse in which commercial interests are not the key factor, and ideas are debated on their merits – the public forum, traditionally newspapers. Free speech then says that within this space, any idea should be tolerated (not any speech – you could probably still be prosecuted for using the word “fuck”), with the exception of certain kinds of personal attack.
    In a way, this free speech concept kind of defines the terms of public debate: keep it civil, chaps, and not too many insults, please, but that aside, anything goes!
    This might be old hat, sorry, but it’s the first time I’ve thought it through. This free speech public debate was for many decades quite resistant to infiltration by commercial interests because commercial interests had other avenues to explore: advertising. Within the public forum, any claim can be instantly rebutted, making it hard for obvious non-arguments to survive. This gave public forum arguments their special quality, and made the forum attractive to anyone who wanted to push their ideas, but the forum was resistant if you didn’t have good arguments. (This all sounds a bit rose-tinted!)
    But now, the public forum has expanded drastically. Rebuttal in the public forum no longer carries as much weight because everything is rebutted. So it interest groups have been able to colonise it more effectively… (OK, I’m completely unconvinced by my own argument here. I don’t think things were better in the good old days.)
    It doesn’t seem to me to be in principle impossible to distinguish between good faith arguments and bad faith arguments. We can identify astroturf, after all. But it would require that we redefine the free speech principle, and reshape the public forum, and that would necessarily be a controversial process. It would involve demanding (and enforcing) sincerity in the public forum, a bit like we do in court.
    Seeing as we already have courts, that doesn’t sound like a great idea.

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