Friday, December 16, 2016

Freedom of Speech

Bill and I have always strongly believed in the principle of freedom of speech, guaranteed to us by the constitution of the United States.  The government block speech only in extreme circumstances, fraud, libel, threats to people and property, but allows people's opinions, no matter how abhorrent we find them. 

Speech used to be tempered by complexity. You could only talk to a small number of people at once. You had to physically print and distribute materials spouting your points of view. So while people could say what they wanted, they had some barriers to distribute that information. We believed in free speech but speech wasn't free.

Now with the Internet, particularly through social media, speech flows quickly and cheaply. Excitedly people could express their views easily. People also discovered that others could do so as well.

We should welcome this diversity of opinion, never available at this level before. We should listen to what people have to say, challenge their views and even their claimed facts, but more importantly challenge ourselves and our own viewpoints with the arguments of others. Never trust anything you see on the Internet but never be afraid of it either.

Instead we see calls protect people from ideas that fall significantly outside the mainstream and decide for them which facts are true or false, whether by blocking accounts or making it more difficult to distribute information. Free speech may have helped elect a president whose views and actions they find abhorrent but that's not a reason to restrict the speech. One must fight words with words, not block the words of others.

We must always fight for the rights of people to express themselves and avoid the path of limiting the spread of ideas. Once we start restricting the distribution of ideas we take a walk down a tough path, and someday you may find you'll have to keep your own thoughts to yourself. 


  1. Great post. Completely agree!

  2. Agree entirely.

    It says a lot about the nature of human cognition, that folks who proclaim themselves to be "rationalists" are nowadays not uncommonly among the most eager to practice censorship, under the aegis (one imagines) that the duties of rationalism include protecting readers from the distraction and corruption of diverse ideas.

    Two works that explore this theme --- the rationalization of censorship --- are Saunders Mac Lane's (short) article "Mathematics at Göttingen under the Nazis" (1995) and Sanford Segal's (long) book Mathematicians under under the Nazis (2014). Mac Lane's account includes the poignant passage (for example)
    There was a book-burning in Göttingen on May 10, 1933. At about that time the copies of the Literary Digest which my mother sent me were no longer allowed to come. [...]
    My landlady regularly provided me with evening tea and talk; I rapidly discovered that two weeks of propaganda [subsequent to the book-burning] had converted her from mild conservative views to ardent Nazi discipleship.
    Segal's account includes hundreds more examples (many far worse) involving mathematicians personally.

    In a nutshell, the history even of mathematics shows plainly that no degree of rational capacity is entirely protective against the all-too-human desire to deny and censor. Perhaps we all ought to consciously and empathically spend a little less time outside our own "bubbles", and a little more time inside the "bubbles" of other people.

  3. It seems to me that deliberately & knowingly crafting false news stories is a different sort of thing than believing and saying incorrect things. The latter case is people expressing themselves and should be protected; the former is attempting to trick people, and I see no reason that tricking people should protected by law. The problem is that its hard to say how to separate the first from the second.

    It's hard, but perhaps not impossible--the laws around libel and slander work to balance free speech allowing while people some recourse in the case of defamation.

    Finally, I don't think you can fight exciting false stories, (specially crafted to draw our attention) with boring, nuanced truth.

  4. Didn't expect to see this on computationalcomplexity.

    Thank you for the breath of fresh air.

    America has jumped the shark. Sometimes it seems safety, wealth and power are its top three values.

    1. "safety, wealth and power are its top three values" - safety for the wealthy and powerful, of course..

  5. Too late!
    It's gone, and long ago.
    The threat is not from the government censorship, it's from the "thought police" of activists of any shape, color and flavor (though more from the left than the right, despite contrary claims) and the hopelessly hobbled garbage from the main medias.
    A compendium of related links: fake news media firestorm

  6. Getting people's attention is still expensive, it is a limited resource. That's why online ads is a business, Google and Facebook and publishers are in the business of selling their viewers' attention. It is still the case that if you are well connected or have money you can get a lot more attention than if you were not.

    We shouldn't ban expression of ideas but maybe we should tax them?Celebrities like Trump get a huge discount, so do controversial and extreme ideas. Ideas that are moderate and make sense sell less. To balance this out we may need a kind of social tax on the expression of controversial ideas, same way we have a tax on tobacco, alcohol and other stuff that are considered harmful for society. Or like carbon, if you are adding greenhouse gases you are harming others and you should pay for it. If you are expressing an idea that has a net negative effect on society and you are getting extra attention because of causing a controversy maybe you should be taxed to pay for harm and balance free attention you get.

  7. wow was thinking of commenting here & linking to my blog & then anon beat me to it. (thx for that!) ... censorship is an ancient problem and the information age only shifts it into a different form. instead of burning books we have "delete buttons". much more civilized and technological, right? a very complex issue that doesnt have simple solutions but it does seem that maybe cyberspace has some new approaches. the digital commons is still being formed, its early days. maybe there is some technological answer to some degree. lets figure out systems that bring out the best in people instead of the worst. but ofc, (sometimes) humans are stupid & theres no universal/ foolproof elegant solution to that eh? "its impossible to make anything foolproof because fools are so ingenious..."

  8. And yet, what do you do when it is one person's *speech* that restricts the spread of ideas? There are a lot of ideas in your post:

    - Freedom of speech that the government can't prevent you from expressing your political ideas
    - An ideal "free speech" in which everyone can express how they feel without fear of adverse consequence, and diverse opinions spread freely and peacefully.
    - The kind of actions that count as free speech, but are solely to express one's view, such as burning a flag or preaching in a public park.
    - The kind of actions which limit speech by violent means (intimidation, harassment, etc), but are nevertheless free speech.
    - The kind of actions which limit speech by complexity-theoretic means (I mainly think of the kind of yelling and spamming that adds more noise than signal), but which are nevertheless free speech.
    - The kind of actions which limit free speech by non-violent means, such as blocking a twitter account, but are nevertheless free speech.

    Can you rank these in terms of which are the most important to uphold? Then what happens if someone uses a speech lower in the ranking to inhibit speech higher in the ranking?

  9. What we need is serious but honest criticism of ideas and opinions. Media has given up that role to a large extent for political and economic reasons. Universities are also giving up that role by turning into prep schools for job market. Who then will pick up the mandate of criticizing stupid and dangerous ideas?

  10. Jeffrey Toobins article in the latest New Yorker is an interesting read on free speech and the changing libel landscape.