How to tame free speech extremists


Unabomber global warming billboardThe conservative US organisation the Homeland Institute recently placed a billboard on the streets of Chicago. The sign read 'I still believe in global warming. Do you?' Above it they had placed an image of the 'Unabomber', Ted Kaczynski. A representative of the Homeland Institute said the intention of the advertisement was to suggest that anyone who still believed in global warming was, in his words, 'more than a little nutty'.

The billboard elicited a negative response from some people who had previously been supporters of the Institute, and has since been removed. But still, the billboard raises important issues of freedom of speech.

The billboard did not break any law. It was removed, not because it was found to be illegal, but because even erstwhile supporters thought it had 'gone too far'. The question therefore arises: even though the Homeland Institute was free by law to post the billboard, ought people be free by law to post such a billboard?

Many people — even those who would describe themselves as global warming skeptics — felt the billboard was inappropriate. But precisely what was wrong with it?

It did not assert anything that was factually in error. Kaczynski does believe in global warming. It does not incite anyone to violence. It does not vilify any ethnic, cultural or sexual minority. It might be claimed to libel a group — those who believe in climate change — by suggesting they are 'nuts'. But it was not removed for this reason.

It was removed because of the adverse reaction it received, even from other skeptics. Some sponsors of the Homeland Institute withdrew their support. The billboards were condemned as 'dumb', in 'incredibly bad taste' and 'offensive'. Obviously, the billboards did not constitute a high quality contribution to public debate.

But — assuming they were not actually against the law because libelous — ought they have been banned? Ought people be prohibited by law from making contributions to public speech that are rude, offensive, in bad taste or show astoundingly bad judgment? There are at least two sides to this question.

It might be argued that words can cause suffering. We have no hesitation in making it illegal for one person to, for example, cause suffering to another by clunking them over the head with a piece of wood. So why not also make it illegal for one person to cause suffering to another by uttering words that are offensive, in bad taste, or indicative of egregiously poor judgment?

But who would have the power to prohibit speech on the grounds that it was offensive? The answer, in broad terms, is people who occupy positions of power or authority of some kind over the rest of us, whether they be elected or appointed officials. And it has long been recognised as potentially very dangerous to hand over to such persons the power to decide what sort of public discussion is to be permitted.

Public discussion is one of the most important means by which we, as a community, evaluate our rulers. It is a means by which we decide what powers, as a community, we consent to our rulers exercising and retaining. Free, open, critical discussion, including discussion of our rulers, is an integral part of democracy.

To hand over to our rulers too much power to decide what we may or may not say carries with it the danger that our ability to criticise, and change, bad rulers may thereby be diminished.

There are dangers associated with allowing people to use public speech in a way that some might regard as offensive or indicative of egregiously bad judgment, but handing over to our rulers the power to prohibit such speech plausibly has even greater dangers.

So what is to be done?

One reason why people on both sides of the global warming debate disapproved of the billboards was that they were merely insulting rather than a rational contribution to the discussion of an issue. They were not a fair-dinkum attempt to get to the truth. They flagrantly lacked any spirit of intellectual fairness and integrity.

Of course, it would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to legislate people into being fair minded and to have intellectual integrity. Perhaps this reminds us that, for free speech to work, it needs to take place in a society in which fairness, integrity and respect for those with different beliefs are seen as virtues, and valued. 


John WrightJohn Wright lectures in philosophy at the University of Newcastle. He is the author of a number of books in philosophy of science, economics and ethics, and metaphysics. 

Topic tags: John Wright, free speech, global warming, climate change deniers



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Existing comments

It appears to me that "the problematic ad" was removed by public reaction to it. There is no need for a law as the removal was achieved without making any new laws.
Trent | 05 June 2012

I realise John Wright is using the example of the Unabomber anti-global warming ad as a hook on which to hang a discussion on how might freedom of speech be circumscribed in a democratic society which believes in freedom under the law. But from my reading of the situation the ad was not "banned". Some supporters of the organisation that put up the ad objected because it was dumb, in bad taste and offensive. But it also gave the Homeland Institute a bad name. It was an example of playing the man and not the ball; of smearing defendants of global warming and not attacking the scientific bases for climate change. The Unabomber ad is the sort of ad you get in a country where Madison Avenue or the Mad Men run public relations. Like all advertisements or commercials or promotions the ultimate test in a free enterprise society like USA is: does it sell more product or make people switch brands or get some power-seeker elected. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don't. Most times the basic decency or common sense of Mr and Mrs Average decides the outcome. Obviously some Average people sponsor the Homeland Institute.
Uncle Pat | 05 June 2012

Interesting article - raises and discusses well several important points. But, interestingly, the billboard in question was not actually "banned". It was removed by those who put it up in the first place presumably because, as Mr Wright indicated, it was costing them money. Sponsors withdrew support. That, however, does not detract from the importance of the article's key message.
John R. Sabine | 05 June 2012

It appears the horse has already bolted on this one and the book of dirty political tricks is getting bigger. Why waste time and energy with reasoned arguments when you can use scare tactics to get the desired outcome? The boogey-man is always looming around the corner - but it's usually done in a more subtle way - a nod and a wink by factions looking for "like-minded" supporters, ranging from gender/sexual orientation to race, socio-economic level, environmental worldview, religion etc etc - At least the Homeland Institute's ad was blatant and obvious - so I'd encourage even more extreme forms of this so we can drag out the issues and get stuck into a decent debate. Bring it on, I say!
AURELIUS | 05 June 2012

We have more than enough censorship already. If somebody says something illegal or harmful, we have laws to deal with it. In Australia, we are actually far away from such a thing as free speech. We have a group of self appointed censors which wants to maintain its own narrow minded outlook on life. We call it often “politically correct”, which means any independent thinking, is killed off with well used slogans.
Beat Odermatt | 05 June 2012

The Homeland Institute - "dumb, in incredibly bad taste and offensive" - just like its billboard! Give 'em enough rope, I say!
Michelle Goldsmith | 05 June 2012

"...was that they were merely insulting rather than a rational contribution to the discussion of an issue." Going on the above criteria, Q&A should have withdrawn the section where the various panel members mocked Gina Rinehart last week.
John Ryan | 05 June 2012

Tes, I do!!!
AZURE | 05 June 2012

No form of 'communication' should ever succumb to shock, horror and vulgarity to prove a point- any point. No one has the right to do what is wrong. What did the sign actually accomplish? It may have had a 'positive' effect on children having helped them grasp the disastrous outcomes of greedy wealth and power- had there been the image of Mr Burns from the Simpsons- who is also Nutty- above 'I still believe in Global Warming do you?'...Philosophising is one thing ( one thousand minds one thousand worlds- certainly- respect- fairness- intellectual integrity) actually resolving a problem is another...Ask any 10 year old .
Myra | 05 June 2012

Has nobody seen the elephant in the room? What price free speech in the Church today?
Ginger Meggs | 06 June 2012

It didn't go far at all, Kazinski was a rabid environmentalist and espoused all of the anti-human anti prosperity ideals that global warming cult espouses today. It was an accurate comparison.
mark | 02 September 2016


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