Friday, April 1, 2016

Freedom of Speech

Some will argue correctly that the First Amendment protection for freedom of speech applies only to the government regulations.  “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech…”  Thus the government is banned from actions denying freedom of speech, but presumably everyone else has no such prohibition.

The typical exception is the example of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater.  This is obviously not protected speech because it poses an immediate and unnecessary danger to the occupants as everyone rushes to the exits.  Whether other instances of such reckless speech are prohibited is decided by the courts.

There have been two recent incidents where those who have been silenced have protested that their rights were violated.  In one case the Trump campaign withdrew from an appearance in Chicago after protests broke out.  More recently a movie promoting the idea of a connection between vaccines and autism was removed from the Tribeca Film Festival.  Is there a problem?

According to the first amendment there is not.  The government did not do anything, except arrest some people in Chicago after the protests turned violent.

According to critical thinking no one’s rights were violated, but an unfortunate trend is appearing.  The stated goal of the University of Illinois-Chicago protesters was to “unite in solidarity AGAINST the Donald Trump campaign and its presence at Chicago and at UIC.”  They rejoiced when they shut it down.  It is unfortunate because it flies in the face of a stance adopted by a number of universities, ironically called the Chicago Principle.  It objects to the silencing of any legitimate organization or person on campus believing that “a culture of intense inquiry and informed argument generates lasting ideas, and that [students and faculty] have a responsibility both to challenge and to listen.”  If statements are legal and not threatening, harassing, defamatory, or a substantial invasion of privacy, they must be considered, discussed and debated regardless of whether it may be thought by some to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.  (See here for further discussion and references.)  Hearing one side of an argument while blocking out the opposition is not consistent with education in college (or learning in life).

Does this reasoning apply to the film?  The administration of the Tribeca Film Festival has every right to jury movies and to select or reject any of them according to taste or any other criteria.  It’s their name on the festival, so to speak.  In this case, they may have been concerned about damage to their reputation and credibility by offering a documentary that was reviewed in the New York Times as “directed and co-written by Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced physician whose paper claiming a connection between autism and measles was retracted by The Lancet and whose license was revoked for ethics violations and his failure to disclose financial conflicts of interest.”  Others have found evidence that his data was fabricated.

The producers have the right to show it elsewhere without government interference.  But this one seems to be a little closer to the “Fire!” in a crowded theater scenario.  The film has drawn protests from the scientific community, not because it is offensive, but because it is wrong and dangerous.  People who accept this argument and who shun vaccination do not risk immediate injury, but they put themselves and/or their children at risk over the long term.  Recently this belief has led to a tripling of measles cases in the US, where the disease had been nearly wiped out.  (For more on the dangers of not vaccinating see here.)

Dangerous as it is, the only recourse the government has is the same as against all the other medical charlatans peddling their miracle cancer cures and their secrets your doctor won’t tell you and all the other conspiracy theories.  If they make illegal medical promises, they can be fined or shut down by the FTC.  Otherwise it’s once again up to us to be critical thinkers, to do the research and analysis.  We must be vigilant.

In general though, intelligent people welcome opposing points of view and either find counter-arguments and contrary evidence to support their opinion or they reconsider their own point of view.  Intelligent people don’t insult or silence the opposition just because they would rather not hear it (and want no one else to hear it).  They don’t consider such silencing as a victory because it really represents a loss, an admission that their arguments are inadequate.  They persuade rather than coerce others to agree by depriving them of exposure to other ideas.

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