June 2019 – What Are the Limits of Free Speech and Who Sets Them?

June 2019 Inter-Belief Conversation Café

What Are the Limits of Free Speech and Who Sets Them?

  Monday, June 24, 2019
  7 p.m. – 9 p.m.
  Interfaith Action of Greater Saint Paul
1671 Summit Avenue, Saint Paul, MN 55105 (View Map)

Should we be allowed to say anything we want without regard to its veracity or potential to harm others? If not, how far can we go? The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution seems to guarantee freedom to speak, but aren’t there practical restrictions? John Stuart Mill in On Liberty spoke of a free marketplace of ideas in which the people would decide which were compelling and which dangerous nonsense. But in a world of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, online stalking, and Russian, Chinese, Korean, and Iranian hackers is that marketplace even safe? And are any of the watchdogs we might appoint to protect us less scary than the threats?

We are told by the U.S. Supreme Court that we are not free to falsely shout fire in a crowded theater. Speech may not present a clear and present danger of violence. Blackmail, extortion, and terroristic threats are all illegal. Some members of Murder, Inc. who went to the electric chair only used their words to order killings not to fire the guns themselves. People can be sued for defamation if their words falsely disparage others. Pornography may be prosecuted even if a Supreme Court justice asked to define it merely stated, “I know it when I see it.”

But surfing the internet finds claims that one president is a Muslim, one ordered people murdered in Arkansas, one allowed 9/11 to happen because of cozy relations with Saudi oil sheiks, and one is failed businessman who has never told the truth in his life. Conspiracy theories abound. Foreigners are out to get us. The nation is in peril from the Far Right, the Far Left, and everyone in between. Is this what James Madison wanted when he drafted the First Amendment?

When a killer livestreams shootings at New Zealand mosques and finds inspiration for his murders on the internet and Facebook, mustn’t someone stop it? When teenagers are driven to suicide by false web postings, are the perpetrators murderers? Should possession of child pornography mean years in prison? When Wikileaks posts government secrets, should Julian Assange be dragged from an Ecuadorian embassy to answer for them? Should leakers be prosecuted under the Espionage Act? What about government officials who speak “off the record” to promote an administration’s spin on events? Should ISIS be allowed to recruit suicide bombers online? Should Russian hackers be free to influence elections? What do we say is acceptable and what reprehensible?

Do we want Mark Zuckerberg to decide for us which Facebook site is hate speech or phony? Do we trust him? Do we trust government watchdogs? Do want the NSA to monitor all our conversations to allow some terrorists to be caught? Do we want our every stupid, thoughtless, and angry expression from years ago exposed to public scrutiny and perhaps ridicule? Is political correctness itself incorrect? Is the best protection not outside agencies but our own sense of right and wrong? But looking in the mirror, are we still so sure?

On Monday, June 24 (the fourth Monday this month) from 7-9 PM at Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul, 1671 Summit Avenue, St. Paul, Inter-belief Conversation Café will ask what is unsayable and who gets to say shut up. Agreements of open-mindedness, acceptance, curiosity, discovery, sincerity, brevity, and confidentiality plus a general spirit of civility will be our only free speech limitations. (They may be enough). No matter what you say; treats will be available!