Mon, Jan 17, 2011 - Page 8

Debating free speech

Contrary to the claim made by Bruno Walther published on your editorial page on Thursday (Letter, Jan. 13, page 8), the appalling shooting of US Representative Gabriel Giffords and innocent bystanders was not “the result of political hate-mongering,” it was the result of the actions of a lunatic who had apparently taken a dislike to Giffords back in 2007, long before former Alaska governor Sarah Palin had become a national figure in the US and the “Tea Party” had been formed.

The implications of this for the veracity of Walther’s claims I shall leave for others to draw for themselves.

The “central question” of “how far should the fundamental right to freedom of expression go?” is transparently oxymoronic to anyone not suffering from the confusion of what Isaiah Berlin politely termed “positive liberty” (ie, freedom to) with “negative liberty” (ie, freedom from).

The freedom to achieve a particular social outcome (ie, capacity or power), as distinct from the condition of being free from coercion, is what lies behind Walther’s fixation upon “the freedom to express wrong and stupid opinions.”

He does not see that in questioning the limits of the right to free speech, he corrupts the meaning of those words by equating them to a privilege granted by the state which, though it may be desirable, is ultimately frivolous relative to the momentous importance of broadcasting the correct opinions of luminaries such as Walther himself.

I protest. If a right is -“fundamental,” then our attempts to uphold that right can accept no compromise whatsoever, since it is the basis of other, derivative political rights — to compromise the integrity of the right to free speech is to open the door to further state encroachment upon this right and, moreover, an encroachment which can no longer be limited and held in check by any rational principle, but only the uncertain sufferance of political parties.



Michael Fagan writes that the claim that Palin was to blame for the shooting of Giffords is “little different from the claim that violence on TV causes violence in real life” (Letters, Jan. 15, page 8). I disagree. There is very strong evidence that media violence causes violence in real life (ie, www.psi.sagepub.com/content/4/3/81.abstract) and no such strong evidence in the Giffords case.

On the other hand, it is quite conceivable that violent rhetoric such as that which routinely comes from Palin’s mouth could inspire real life violence, even though it has not been shown to have done so in this case.

Martin Luther King, Jr was able to lead an effective movement that produced fundamental change in society, while cautioning his followers against hate and violence. Palin might consider this model of leadership.