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Noise is not Free Speech

We’re on a collision course with technology. Free speech is being killed in order to save it.

Something is always boiling up that involves free speech. Cartoons are drawn of the “wrong” person, somebody is jailed for speaking out and gets the Nobel prize, there are plans to build a mosque in the “wrong” place. And some people picket funerals to gloat.

All of these things are a step too far for some people. Others insist that we can’t draw any lines without sliding down a slippery slope of more and more lines until there’s no free speech left.

The dilemma doesn’t actually seem intractable to me. Try a thought experiment. You’re in a huge room with 10,000 other people. Nobody can say anything. There’s total silence except for the occasional suppressed cough. Is there any freedom of speech?

Now you’re in the same room, but anyone can speak and anyone can say anything. Everybody’s talking — shouting, really, to make themselves heard. You can’t even hear yourself speak. Is there any freedom of speech?

We’re not in the first situation anymore. When the great thinkers of the 1700s were articulating the essential freedoms, few people had the means to disseminate their ideas to begin with, so there weren’t many voices. Nor was there the technology to din at people 24/7/365. So noise was not a large concern. They worried about silencing.

Silencing was and is a crime against inalienable rights and has to be prevented.

But noise can kill a message just as dead as silence. Either way, you can’t hear it. Either way, we lose the freedom of speech. Either way, the loss is just as lethal to a free society.

Insisting that everyone, everywhere, for any purpose, has an equal right to speak hasn’t preserved freedom of speech. It’s killing it. When everybody can shout as loud as they can about whatever they want, you either can’t hear anything or the biggest voices will dominate. It’s right back to the king having the only voice. The fact that it’s not literally a monarch these days doesn’t make it all right.

Yes, I know. If speech is limited we have to — horrors! — draw some limits. Well, … we already do, and that hasn’t killed free speech. That promotes it. Unless the signal to noise ratio favors signal, there is no signal. That’s not exactly hard to figure out.

So, let’s start with the easy cases, the ones where limits have long been applied and clearly don’t lead to disaster. Free speech doesn’t confer a right to perjury, to wrong answers on exams, to yelling “fire” for nothing in crowded theaters, or to incitement to riot. Truth in advertising laws say it’s unacceptable to lie in order to extract money. None of these limits has led to thought control. It is possible to apply limits on speech without losing freedom. As a matter of fact, we’d lose freedom if they were not applied.

If some limits work, then limits work, and people can stop pitching a fit every time there’s talk of limits. The rational response is, “What are the best limits for preserving freedom of speech?”

Half the answer is contained in the question. Anything that remains murky after our best efforts to find the limits gets the benefit of the doubt and is covered by freedom of speech. That part’s not hard to figure out either.

The hard part is updating the limits for a technological age in which everybody can shout their point of view. If everybody gets veto power, nothing can be said. If there’s no way to draw the line, nothing can be heard. There has to be a better way.

There’s a common denominator to the limits that work. If everyone claimed the right to the forbidden kinds of speech, chaos would ensue. If everybody lied, incited to riot, and yelled fire in crowded theaters, life would become impossible. Those kinds of speech require double standards. Only some people can use them and only some of them time. Everybody else has to keep the system working. Double standards have no place in a democratic society, so that kind of speech not only can be but must be forbidden. It’s noise. Bad noise. (Discussed at greater length in Free Speech vs. Noise [1].)

So, how does that help us resolve any of the disputes? Let me give it a whirl.

When everywhere else is a venue for free expression, it’s idiotic to insist that crashing a stranger’s funeral is the only thing that will do. Of course, the Phelpses are idiotic, so that’s no surprise. The rest of us shouldn’t be as confused as they are about where the limits lie.

1 Comment (Open | Close)

1 Comment To "Noise is not Free Speech"

#1 Comment By Earlynerd On 07 Dec, 2017 @ 13:46

Maybe just a guest rant 🙂 ?

“Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel.”

Your Sweden link proves her right. The higher paid workforce is filled with mediocre man and (relative) female Einsteins.