More by Glenn Greenwald on free speech (cont’d)

April 6, 2010

In a previous post I argued that Glenn Greenwald’s arguments against laws for the suppression of certain ideas cannot be effective until he establishes what makes expressing ideas different from other human activities that are regulated by law. Greenwald’s main argument, which seems generally on the mark and deserves close examination, is that regulations that bar the expression of certain ideas foreclose the possibility of certain political changes. It seems that Greenwald considers this effect as something clearly to be avoided (even at high potential short term cost) but, as is unfortunately his habit, he does not make his argument and his reasoning explicit. I previously committed to consider this argument in detail next. Before doing so, however, I want to consider a somewhat different argument mentioned by Greenwald. I therefore postpone treatment of the main argument to an upcoming post.

Greenwald’s other argument purporting to show why banning speech is not like banning other types of behavior is short-term utilitarian. Greenwald claims that “airing” ideas is “better” than suppressing them – “better”, we are given to understand, even for those who find those ideas wrong or offensive. If this is true, then those people who support the suppression of an idea are simply mistaken – they are unaware that having that idea (any idea) freely expressed would do them good. Greenwald doesn’t indicate in his original post why he thinks that this is so, but a note he wrote a little later (Update II) seems to explicate his thinking by saying that “censorship laws almost always backfire by converting their targets into martyrs”. Again, if this is true (which is not clear) then it is a good reason for people who are opposed to an idea not to try to legislate against it – or, more precisely, not to do so in a way that is perceived as targeting a certain idea or certain people explicitly.

The latter phrasing indicates that a third possibility (in addition to suppression and complete deregulation) exists – legislating against certain ideas in an implicit way. In fact, this type of legislation is quite common and quite effective. Such legislation does not usually prevent ideas from being expressed altogether, but it hampers their appearance in mass media, which is a very effective way to limit their dissemination and acceptance. Such methods (e.g., private ownership of mass media channels) seem to be acceptable – but not desirable – in Greenwald’s eyes. He is quite aware of the effects of those controls, and would like to see them corrected, but he does not seem to see them as expressions of “hubris” or irrational thinking in the same way he sees explicit suppression laws.

In view of the above, it may be that Greenwald would support certain laws that would allow some types of suppression – as long as they don’t involve explicit bans. One could consider elected “content boards”, for example, which could veto TV and radio programs, or talks at a university, or lectures to crowds larger than 100 people, etc. These may seem outrageous at first, but in fact they are not any less justifiable than the current situation in which owners, editors and appointed officials have very similar powers.

In any case, whether acceptable or not, it is hard to deny that these methods of suppression of ideas are effective. If so, their use cannot be rejected by appealing to the utilitarian argument stated above. Employing those methods to suppress a certain idea does indeed have the wanted effect. Accepting, then, that effective methods of suppression exist, the question of principle – should certain ideas be suppressed – needs to be answered on the basis of justice or long-term utility. My consideration of Greenwald’s main argument (suppression of speech prevents legitimate [or desirable] political change) will be aimed at producing such an answer.


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