Death Threats should rightly be illegal

9 01 2012

For future reference I have posted a response to John Humphrey’s “Defending Death Threats” article which appeared on the Thoughts on Freedom Blog 18 Dec 2010.
Hopefully some politically minded person may find an Objectivist approach to this topic makes far more sense than John’s article.

John said: “The moral reason to allow the above sort of rants is that Graeme hasn’t actually directly hurt anybody with his rant, nor has he tried to coerce anybody (by saying “do XYZ, or else””

It’s very easy to conceive of a situation where speech could cause harm. eg/ Fraud.
But John is being careful to say that causing harm while immoral, shouldn’t necessarily be illegal. Agreed? I too agree. Say I tell a perfectly sound of mind person to jump off a tall building and they go all crazy and actually do it with disastrous consequences – this does not mean I should have been censored by the law.

However if the harm was effectively forced onto another without their consent, then it is no longer simply immoral, it should be illegal, eg/ if I pushed the person off the building. Agreed?

John’s position appears to be that speech by it’s nature cannot be an initiation of force. Yes/No?

Where we differ is demonstrated by the classic yelling “fire” in a crowded theater example right?
I think this is an initiation of force and should be illegal – John doesn’t.
Say a mother hears my shout of “fire”, picks up her baby and runs out the theater. But there’s a big crowd pushing and shoving at the door and she drops her baby and its arm breaks.
I believe I have initiated force against the mother. Accordingly the law should make me pay the medical costs for that baby and that I should also be charged for threatening others. Whereas John wouldn’t agree. Perhaps John would argue that the mother shouldn’t believe everything she hears? Feel free to elaborate.
Personally I suspect there’s a mind/body dichotomy here. After all the physical presence of sound waves in the air don’t in of themselves constitute an act of force.

Ideas themselves and speech ie: spoken or written ideas, are linked to physical action. ie: The mind and the body are always interlinked in reality, even though we can separate them as different conceptual categories. Speech involves certain actions and ideas themselves also prompt actions. I think it’s easy to show that speech can effectively be an initiation of physical force.
Eg/ A man approaches me in a dark alley and says, “give me your wallet or else I will kill you”. Say I can’t see if he’s got a weapon or not so as to keep this on a level of speech only. in John’s words, this man “hasn’t actually directly hurt anybody”.
But I’m not going to wait and see if he means it or not. I must take his threat seriously because if I don’t I could be dead. This man has initiated force against me – and this death threat itself should be illegal. My life is the ultimate principle guiding the conditions of freedom, and the limits to free speech should be defined based on the fact that my right to my life the fundamental. Free speech is a necessary condition to a free society, but it is not the most fundamental principle to freedom and it has limits.

It’s worth noting that the ability to speak freely presupposes the physical means and therefore property. If free speech is an absolute right, then logically some psycho should legally be allowed to force his way into my house and crap on about white supremacy for as long as he pleases.

For example/ A noisy left-wing protest at a university which shuts down the talk of an invited guest who advocates capitalism. Say the protestors enter the lecture theater during the speech and start chanting and shouting so no one can hear the talk. Using speech they have shut this guy down.
This would be a property rights violation by the protestors against the university. The protestors do not have the right to do what they please in buildings they do not own or without the owners permission. They have every right to speak publicly with the approval of property owners or to write their objections in publications willing to print their opinion or to start their own publication. They can preach whatever foul, twisted ideas they have which if followed could result in countless deaths – but using their property. Here I am agreeing with John. It would be ridiculous to think that a government is capable of or should control the spread of ideas themselves. This would violate a person’s right to their life because human beings are volitional. Knowledge is not by its nature a matter of authority or force, it is an impossible fantasy to think human beings would be better off with any level of censorship of ideas themselves. However it does not follow from this fact that speech cannot be used to initiate force.

Finally one more example. Say I own a store which has a big window on the the street frontage. This is a busy street (note the street is not my property of course) in the city and all sorts of people walk down this street as part of their daily lives. I think it should be illegal to put up a big poster of a naked, mutilated dead body in the window of my shop, or to have hard-core porn showing on a big TV in my shop window. Even though I should be allowed to purchase and watch this material myself and even though I am using my property to do this – anyone who walks past would have real difficulty in avoiding seeing my displays. I am effectively forcing my “speech” onto passers-by many of whom would be offended. This is a similar principle to justifying laws against making excessive noise forcibly disturbing others on property you don’t own like your neighbours.

Incidentally, I have a brief comment specifically on the Bolt incident. Admittedly I didn’t look into this incident in any detail when it occurred. My understanding is that Bolt was ridiculing people who claim to be Aboriginal when they don’t look Aboriginal. He, like me probably hates the way Aboriginals are treated differently by the law. And I suspect that he thinks that if the law insists on this racism, then shouldn’t there be an objective standard of proof to show you are Aboriginal rather than being able to just assert you are an Aboriginal and receive extra welfare money or be favored in job applications? I don’t know the details or even care – my position is one law for all adult individuals. I think it is immoral and harmful to base legislation on any collective grouping of people above individuals ie: race, sex, class etc.
From the very little information I saw, the result was a clear injustice towards Bolt. And I believe the Victorian Racial Vilification Act violates the right to free speech, and should probably be completely repealed.
The government has failed in its role of protecting freedom and not surprisingly this legislation will and has resulted in immoral, unjust and impractical consequences.

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