Some thoughts on free speech

Professor Jerry Coyne has an excellent blog about evolution and, perhaps secondarily, atheism: Why Evolution Is True.  I have often re-shared his posts on various social media because they just make so much sense; and I will continue to do so.  Recently, however, Jerry took a bit of a swipe at Canada, and I must take exception.  I do this not because I’m a patriotic Canadian, but because I sincerely believe that freedom of speech as enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States is extremely sub-optimal and largely responsible for the emergence of a uniquely American phenomenon, the right-wing nut job.

Jerry’s post, A Bad Week for Free Speech, covers recent happenings in Britain and India, in which events where changed or cancelled because of, as Jerry writes, “Muslims whose feelings were hurt.” He argues that those things run counter to the requirements of free speech as a key element of democracy.

Jerry writes: “Free speech is the backbone of those democracies, and, except for a few intimideated [sic] democracies like Canada and Ireland, free speech applies to all forms of criticism, political or religious.”  (The links in this quote are in Jerry’s original.)

The link for Canada points to the Wikipedia page on Holocaust Denial, and mention of Canada in that page regards the fact that Canada will generally have none of this Holocaust Denial business.  Since Jerry’s post is mostly about Islam, it’s not explicit how he sees Canada violating the notion of free speech.  I assume that he means that one should be free to deny the Holocaust, because that’s what freedom of speech is all about, and the discussions that will ensue will determine what is true and what isn’t.  If that isn’t the case, then I will certainly retract / rewrite this entry once the facts are made clear to me.

I believe that free speech is important, but that it must be tempered by what is actually known.

That is to say: one can allocate pretty much any topic of discussion into one of three categories: things that we know are true, things that we know are false, and things the truth of which we just don’t know.  Speech that intentionally advocates known falsehoods as if they were true is irrational because it (a) undermines the consistency of our body of knowledge and (b) generally leads to suffering.  These things happen because of the falsity of the statements made and the implications drawn from them used by some to decide on courses of action.  As such, that kind of speech should not be protected by laws of free speech.

When I say “we,” I mean the collective of humanity.  So while it is possible for “us” to know why the sky is blue, it isn’t the case that every individual knows it. But one may learn why the sky is blue because that information is readily available.  It isn’t wrong to be ignorant, but it is wrong to maintain a falsehood in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

This highlights a particular aspect of free speech that I think is often overlooked: humans are at best bounded reasoners.  We regularly reason with incomplete or incorrect information, and our reasoning processes are often themselves incorrect.  We can make up for these shortcomings through discussion and study, but the fact remains that many things that many people believe and say are just wrong.  Unfettered free speech would be fine in a world populated by perfect reasoning agents, but the assumption that we are perfect reasoners undermines the notion entirely.

Holocaust denial is an excellent case in point.  To the best of my knowledge, there is absolutely no doubt that the Holocaust happened.  This evidence has been accumulated over many years and with the work of thousands of individuals.  It results in a body of knowledge that is as good as we can possibly make it.  Denying that it happened is tantamount to denying that the sky is blue or that rocks fall when you drop them.  There are certainly many people who don’t know about the Holocaust.  There are even some who might be shocked to discover than humanity could have ever behaved so immorally, and so resist accepting it.  But the facts are the facts, and eventually every rational person must accept those facts because to do otherwise is to deny truth and reality.

There are, as far as I can tell, only two reasons that a person might persistently deny that the Holocaust happened in the face of the overwhelming evidence: either they are mentally ill, or they seek to foment disharmony and suffering.  In neither case should a caring society allow such speech to occur, because it is in no one’s interest – except the deniers – and their interests are suspect at least and evil at most.

In any case, if there were suddenly new evidence found that cast doubt on the occurrence of the Holocaust, there exists a well-defined mechanism for examining and determining the veracity of that evidence: academia.  If some Holocaust denier were truly in possession of such real evidence, it should be published in peer-reviewed journals, it should be subject to close study by experts in diverse fields that pertain, it should be vetted, replicated, and considered from every angle.  That’s what happens with every other serious claim; why should Holocaust denial be any different?

Instead, Holocaust deniers are weak reasoners, shrill and hateful creatures who try to spread their claims through mainstream media or through self-publication.  Why?  Some of them do it that way because they’re paranoid and believe that academe will quash their work.  Others simply haven’t the reasoning or language skills to pose their arguments in a way that pass muster in a freshman class on rhetoric and argumentation.  I’m sure that there are other reasons, but I quite honestly can’t be bothered to think about them.

Anyone can make a mistake.  I am not advocating for some kind of zero-tolerance on false speech.  I’m referring to the cases that are glaringly obvious.  Some examples are those in the Wikipedia page for Holocaust denial that pertain to Canada.  Those whose speech in Canada was limited are those who systematically continued to write and utter falsehoods in the face of readily available and overwhelming evidence that they were wrong.

There’s little to be gained by allowing entirely unfettered free speech.  (This is even evident in the US Constitution, which does place limits on free speech.)  And there is also much to be lost by the kind of free speech that is accepted in the US.  Consider all the time and money wasted by the right wing nut jobs and by the futile discussions resulting from lies that are spread via certain media outlets.  All that time and money could be used to achieve so many more meaningful goals.  And the unnecessary dissent that such free speech sows in a population just stalls more important and meaningful discussions from even being started.

There’s no need to focus exclusively on the Holocaust either.  Another subject very close to Jerry’s heart – and mine as well – has also been the subject of ridiculous counterarguments: evolution.  There is no doubt that the modern theory of evolution is the best possible explanation of the development of complex life on earth that humanity has ever developed.  It draws from evidence from disparate sciences, all of them not only confirming evolution as our best model, but simultaneously disproving every other model that has been proposed.  If someone finds a serious flaw in the theory of evolution, that person can publish it in the appropriate venues.  Once subjected to appropriate study and verification, there is no reason to think that a new model would not be forthcoming.  But until that happens, the rantings of, for instance, creationists and intelligent design advocates only distract us from progressing and waste precious resources that would be far better spent doing other things.  Creationism and intelligent design, in their current forms, are lies, and should not be afforded the protection of free speech.

There are plenty of things that can be discussed openly, even under Canada’s “limited” form of free speech – important things about international affairs, taxation, social policy, foreign aid, sustainability,… The list is very long.  These are all subjects about which truth is not necessarily available; these are all subjects about which meaningful discussion is absolutely necessary.  Seeking truth in its absence is always a good thing.  But preaching well-known falsehoods can never be good, because it leads to nothing good.  This is why free speech is important, but also why we must be willing to temper it with some limits based on what is known.

“Shouting Fire” will have you seeing red

I recently saw the new documentary “Shouting Fire: stories from the edge of free speech.”  I must say, it’s well-worth watching.  The film is about the First Amendment and free speech in the United States.  More specifically, it’s about the perceived endangerment of free speech in the US.  It consists of a collection of stories, each revolving around the use and abuse of free speech.  There’s even a Facebook page for people to find out more about the film and engage in discussions.  There is a clearly political tone to the piece: it’s makers seem staunchly in favour of the First Amendment as an inviolate tenet of American life, to be sacrificed for no one and nothing.

You may find yourself at once attracted and repulsed by this documentary.  I certainly was.  The story of  Debbie Almontaser, for instance, is a great example of how a thoughtful, caring person – who happens to be Muslim – was torn to shreds by the mass media.  Although Ms. Almontaser always represented herself thoughtfully and intelligently, she was naive enough to speak in ways that were easily twisted by certain news outlets and anti-Muslim racist groups in the US to appear to suggest exactly the opposite of what she actually meant.  Here is a case of good words, utterly in perhaps the wrong context, or with a lack of appreciation for the peculiarities of certain segments of American culture, becoming bad ones.  Perhaps Ms. Almontaser was too naive.  But it appears quite certain that a significant number of New Yorkers displayed ignorance on a cosmological scale, a streak of malice as wide as the Mississippi River, and a nearly clinical lack of empathy.

The documentary also covers the story of Ward Churchill, who was removed from his post as a Professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder for “research misconduct.”  Churchill’s writings are intentionally controversial and inflammatory (check out his titles in Google Scholar).  The man is clearly well-educated and has an excellent grasp of English.  It seems, then, that he intentionally chooses to write and say things that piss people off.

This isn’t what professors do.  Once granted the status of professor, one is expected to uphold a certain code of conduct – at least in matters of intellect.  This code includes, among other things, communicating in the most rational and reasonable way possible.  And communication is a vital characteristic of the professoriate: knowledge is useless if it cannot be communicated, and professors are the keepers of knowledge.  They may be passionate, but they must abide by the centuries old rules of good, meticulous research and its communication.  Time and time again over the centuries it has been shown that those who implement slash-and-burn policies of self-expression, writing, and speaking end up being ignored and, often, proved wrong.

It seems evident that Churchill intentionally abdicated this responsibility.  The question in the Churchill case is: does free speech trump a professor’s responsibilities?  It seemed that the makers of the documentary thought it did.  I disagree.  Churchill was granted the right of free speech as an American citizen.  But he chose to be a professor, knowing full well what the professor’s responsibilities were.  (I refuse to believe anyone would subject themselves to the personal suffering needed to achieve a professorship without knowing what they were getting themselves into.)  No one forced him to be a professor.  He could have gained just as much notoriety and disseminated his ideas just as quickly without being a professor.  His ideas would have been no more praised or vilified without his professorial standing as with it.  Because it was his choice, then he also had to accept the responsibilities that require, not a muzzling of his right to free speech, but rather a choice of language, tone, and vocabulary that is designed to not be inflammatory and intentionally confrontational.  He chose instead to abdicate those responsibilities.  This demeans the professoriate.  To maintain the status of the professoriate and the trust that others should have of it, he just had to go.

These are just two examples of the stories that are covered in this documentary.

You might love it, or you might hate it.  But whatever else, you’ll be glad you watched it.

Discipline in education and social networking: a tempest in a teapot

Pondering the impact of social networking on discipline in education is a total waste of time.

This item was brought to my attention:

OJEN Newsflash: Great Debate: Student Discipline in the Age of Social Networking!
A student is disciplined for writing unkind comments on

  • Is this a violation of students’ freedom of expression under the Charter?
  • Who protects the teacher or maintains school order?
  • How far does the school’s disciplinary responsibility extend?
  • When is students’ expression harmful or damaging to others in the school community?

With increasing frequency Canadian students are being disciplined for remarks made on social networking websites.  Join us on April 15th at this year’s Great Debate where debaters will argue the perspectives of the student, teacher and school board.  Expert legal commentators will lead a post debate discussion, followed by a wine and cheese reception hosted by The Law Society of Upper Canada.  Classroom resources and lesson plans will also be distributed to attendees.
The Great Debate is an OJEN Law Week program designed to enliven discussion about the justice system, particularly for high school teachers and students.  The Great Debate is filmed and a DVD version with accompanying lesson plans is made available free of charge to teachers across the province for use in their classrooms.
To attend this free event, email

First off, the web site’s real URL is  A little background research wouldn’t hurt, folks.

So we have some kid who used a perfectly legitimate web site to express an “unkind comment” about his teacher.  And the poor kid gets “disciplined” for expressing an opinion and having the guts to let himself be identified as the author.

Is this a violation of the student’s rights?  Absolutely! He can go to the corner store with his friends and diss his teacher all he wants.  He might be unkind; he might even be wrong.  But he has the right to express himself – even if he is “unkind.”  Students have been hanging out at the corner store talking badly about their teachers for as long as there have been teachers.  But it seems that only recently have teachers become so delicate and emotionally sensitive that they need protection for students’ comments.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me – unless I’m a teacher.

The fact that this case took place on the web instead of at the corner store is irrelevant.  The difference is only one of quantity, not quality.  I’m no more a murderer if I kill 10 people than if I kill only one.  Similarly, the fact that many more people are likely to see the comments on RateMyTeacher than would hear them at a corner store is not the point.  If it were, then we’d need to define the size of audience that sets a limit, beyond which disciplinary action is acceptable.  But how arbitrary would that be!  If 10 people hear/read you, that’s fine; but if 11 people hear/read you, then you’re in big trouble!

To discipline a student for speaking his mind – even unkindly – is to teach the student that his opinion doesn’t matter.  That’s not education; that’s an intellectual lobotomy.

The school should have given him a good talking to and sent him on his way.  (I assume that a good talking to is not what they meant by “discipline.”)  They may have explained to him how his sort of behaviour reflects poorly on him.  They might have explained how he might express himself differently.  They may have done a hundred things better than just disciplining the kid.

Who protects the teacher or maintains school order?  No one! Oh, what an Orwellian ring “school order” has!  The school’s ability to exert any power over students stops at the ends of the school’s property.  If the student used school computers to post his comments, then the school is to blame for not blocking that site.  (Of course, if the school does block the site, then one must then ask What are they afraid of?)  If the student was off school property, then the school has absolutely no power over him whatsoever.

And what kind of spineless and feeble teachers are we talking about, that they need “protection” from harsh language?  Obviously not the kind who should actually be teaching!  There’s a related website,, in which I and many of my colleagues have been trashed by students.  We just laugh – indeed, some of us enjoy reading the terrible reviews we all occasionally get.  Indeed, I tell my students about the site, and show them the particularly bad reviews I’ve gotten.  It’s great fun, and it tells my students that I’m not afraid of what they think.

Do teachers really have such poor self-esteem, compared to professors, that they need all this gentleness and protection from those rude brats?  If they do, then why are we allowing such people of weak character teach our children?

How far does the school’s disciplinary responsibility extend?  To the edge of the school property, not one inch further! Schools are surrogate parents under only very specific circumstances.  Only parents have the responsibility to “discipline” their children otherwise.  This is part of the social contract in which we all participate.  A school that attempts to undermine this contract is placing itself above the society that gives rise to it, when it is, in fact, in service to it.  The school is therefore in violation of its own most basic principle: to show children how to function well and happily in society.

When is students’ expression harmful or damaging to others in the school community?  Never! It doesn’t matter how callous or vulgar a student’s statements may be, they all mean something more than just a crass utterance.  Since we’re talking about a site called RateMyTeacher, we can assume the student is 17 years old or younger.  Given the utter lack of education students get in how to express themselves these days, it’s no wonder they must resort to “unkind comments” to express themselves.  It’s absurd to think that the same teachers who have not taught students how to express themselves get upset when the students show a lack of that very ability.  It’s certainly got to be a slap in the face, to see your own students behave in a way that so comprehensively contradicts what you’re supposed to have taught them….

Sometimes, students use inappropriate language and behaviour to get attention.  Well, disciplining such a student is giving them a lot of attention.  Students: 1; teachers: 0.

Sometimes, they do it because they’re angry – but they don’t know why.  In my experience, anger comes from confusion or frustration.  In either case, the anger is a symptom.  Treating the symptom (with discipline) only hides the symptom but does not address the underlying cause.  Students: 2; teachers: 0.

In any case, the point is this: dealing with students’ behaviours is rarely well-handled by discipline, whether or not the behaviours are mediated by online tools.  Online tools are only that – they cause no qualitative changes whatsoever.  So this whole mess about the impact of discipline with respect to social networking is a contemptible waste of time and money.