Friday, June 10, 2016

Freedom of Speech

NB: I understand well the NAP applied to this topic.  I also understand that just because something is allowable within the NAP doesn’t mean it is conducive toward a civil society, and therefore even conducive toward developing and maintaining a free society. 

Expanding freedom is possible in the long run only within a society that understands what is necessary to maintain freedom.  I keep in mind: the less civil and the less respectful the society – while such behavior is perhaps perfectly compatible with the NAP – the more demand for more government.

I know some libertarians don’t like to think about culture; I do not understand how it can be avoided when the subject is freedom.  There is a reason that western governments do all they can to destroy culture – the reason should be obvious to those who claim to want to be free of state violence.


Freedom of speech is the right to communicate one's opinions and ideas without fear of government retaliation or censorship.

This is a clear and simple definition of freedom of speech.  The “right” is an individual’s right against the government; there is no such “right” against other individuals.  Of course, as Rothbard has very well explained, the phrase “freedom of speech” only confuses the matter – the issue is one of property rights.

On his property, a property owner has the right to both speak his mind and limit the speech of others.  And while the “right” of freedom of speech is intended to keep one free from government retaliation and censorship, it is silent on the matter of retaliation and censorship by private individuals (outside of rights in property and therefore the NAP). 

Retaliation or censorship taken by a private individual for offensive speech might take a form that violates the speaker’s rights (like a punch in the nose).  A retaliatory (private) punch in the nose is not a freedom of speech issue; it is possibly an issue of violating the non-aggression principle.  But private retaliation has nothing to do with freedom of speech.

Advancing Human Freedom?

The Cato Institute announced today [May 11, 2016] that Flemming Rose, Danish journalist and author of The Tyranny of Silence, will receive the 2016 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty, a $250,000 biennial award presented to an individual who has made a significant contribution to advance human freedom.

In 2005, Rose, then an editor at the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, sparked worldwide controversy when he commissioned and published 12 cartoons meant to depict the prophet Muhammad.

Flemming Rose criticized no government, nor was he persecuted or censored by his government for this action. 

The illustrations, intended to draw attention to the issue of self-censorship and the threat that intimidation poses to free speech, provoked deadly chaos in the Islamic world and put Rose in the center of a global debate about the limits to free speech in the 21st century.

I don’t see how Rose advanced human freedom in any meaningful or sustainable way.  I do see that he advanced “deadly chaos” – precisely that which governments thrive upon for sustenance. 

I find nothing to suggest that his action has anything to do with the concept of freedom of speech.  What did he say against the government?  Did the speech violate a government censor?  Was he persecuted by the government in some manner for his cartoons? 

Nothing.  No.  No.  Yet it is for advancing freedom of speech that he is receiving this award. 

What does Rose have to say about these cartoons?  He offers that there are two narratives, the first being about self-censorship – the narrative he holds:

Then, you have another narrative saying: This was not about free speech or self-censorship; it was about a powerful newspaper insulting a minority. This was a fair argument until the moment when the threats were issued.”

If it is a fair argument then it is a fair argument.  How do subsequent threats change this?  Do threats by a few eliminate the fair argument for the many?  Don’t believe me?  Take Rose’s word for it, in another interview:

"There are those who viewed the cartoons that I published as a form of incitement, but I don't think a statement should be measured by the response it yields, especially if the response is irrational and stupid."

The response does not change the fair argument.

Self-censorship is an important concept in the realm of speech among and between private individuals – it demonstrates both respect and humility.  To not self-censor is a sign of immaturity.

We see this in the protestors at Trump rallies; we see this in the so-called “safe spaces” erupting at college campuses across the country.  Obnoxious, spoiled children unable or unwilling to self-censor.  Are these brats deserving of this Cato award next year?  (Probably, yes, now that I think about it; or maybe a Students for Liberty award of some kind.  A gold plated pacifier, perhaps.)

For some reason – just a few short months after this burst of so-called free speech and tearing down the walls of self-censorship – Jyllands-Posten matured; the editors found religion:

On 8 February 2006, Flemming Rose said in interviews with CNN and TV 2 that Jyllands-Posten planned to reprint satirical cartoons depicting the Holocaust that the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri planned to publish. He told CNN "My newspaper is trying to establish a contact with that Iranian newspaper Hamshahri, and we would run the cartoons the same day as they publish them". Later that day the paper's editor-in-chief said that Jyllands-Posten under no circumstances would publish the Holocaust cartoons and Flemming Rose later said that "he had made a mistake". The next day Carsten Juste, the editor-in-chief of Jyllands-Posten, stated that Flemming Rose was on indefinite leave because he needed time off.

This just five months after taking on Muhammad.  I guess there are some minorities / religions about whom self-censorship = freedom of speech.

As if to demonstrate that Rose himself does not understand the concept of freedom of speech, here commenting on the Charlie Hebdo attacks:

In response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Rose commented "These murders challenge democracies in the most sickening style. They present a terrible threat to the free speech that is the foundation of true democracy"

I have previously written about the fallacy of the freedom of speech narrative regarding the Charlie Hebdo attacks.  Certainly one is free to speak out against and regarding private individuals in a most rude and demeaning manner.  One is also free to face the consequences – be they justifiable consequences or not.  Sometimes one should expect a good punch in the nose for an offending comment – the punch perhaps a violation of the NAP, but useful in establishing societal boundaries of acceptable behavior.

Demonstrating that he does not understand anything about the fabric that holds society together:

Rose argued in the interview that “it is discriminatory toward Muslims to say that we should not make fun of their religion when we are making fun of everybody else's religion….”

One might consider that making fun of Christianity is one reason for the death of Europe.  Where is the religion?  Where is the common culture?  On what basis will societal relationships hold together?  Those toiling tirelessly in Brussels are hoping that the answers to these questions will lead Europeans to worship the EU.

I do not intend to get into the issue of Rose’s cartoons provoking deadly chaos in the Islamic world – this is an issue for another time and perhaps another writer.  For now, suffice it to say that to glorify him with an award for freedom of speech (that had nothing to do with freedom of speech) for cartoons that then resulted in “deadly chaos” seems to me at least somewhat distasteful.

Do you want to see free speech?  There are countless individuals around the world who have spoken out against their government who are now sitting in prison or suffering other consequences at the hands of their government.  Award one of them this prize. 

People such as these speak out directly against the actions of government.  This is the issue of free speech.  The issue is not regarding poking fun at private individuals or their religion without regard to consequence.  The issue of free speech is simple: free speech is free from government censorship and free from risk of government retaliation.

Instead of speech that makes government uncomfortable, Cato awards speech that is aimed at demeaning private individuals.  This is the pinnacle of freedom in 2016 for Cato.

For a New Libertine

Flemming Rose did nothing more than the screaming juveniles (in maturity if not age) do in our time; he created his own safe space by destroying all that was around him.  Instead of speech that puts him in the cross-hairs of the government punishment apparatus, he takes advantage of a government subsidy of protection in order to avoid or minimize the private consequences of rudeness and immaturity (whether or not the consequences are a violation of the NAP is irrelevant; a rude comment will deservedly receive a punch in the nose).

From this I conclude that taking advantage of a government subsidy is worthy of a freedom award at Cato.

Facing the risk of consequences is a great disciplining force; government ruins this at every turn.  It is no wonder why.  Facing the risk of private consequences in all aspects of life, including speech, is one means – and an effective means – in ensuring that respectful and civil behavior is maintained without the need of a monopoly provider or final arbiter. 

From this I conclude thatcelebrating the loss of civility is worthy of a freedom award at Cato.

I don’t know what to say about praising speech that results in deadly chaos.  It may not be a violation of the NAP, but it also doesn’t strike me as worthy of an award for freedom.  This was no speech against government; it was not speech in the face of government censorship and threats of prison.  It was speech designed to antagonize more than one billion people.  It was speech designed to generate violent conflict, nothing more. 

The resultant dead, wounded, and homeless didn’t gain any freedom.


They hate us for our freedom.  Cato, with this freedom award, may have finally proven this government propaganda to be true.


  1. You've uncovered an inconsistency in my own thinking on this matter. From the framework of the NAP and propertarianism, I had just assumed that free speech meant the individual has a right to criticize or verbally attack any other individual or group for any reason, as long as it does not violate the NAP. But as you allude, the NAP should not be understood out of the context of a broader moral system. Libertarianism (NAP-ism) is a moral philosophy first and a political philosophy second. Just because the NAP-ist believes the government should not intervene in non-aggressive moral issues does not mean the NAP-ist should have no opinion about the moral structures and conduct of his or her society. We are still our "brother's keeper."

    I almost feel like this goes back to the distinction between positive and negative rights. Free speech is a negative right in that it is meant to protect the individual from having the government aggress against them in response to non-aggressive protest. It is NOT a positive right, I.E. it is not meant to ensure the government preemptively protects the individual from the retaliation of peers or otherwise supports or "plays sides" in the matter.


    1. On many levels I struggled with this post. Your comments give me an opportunity to perhaps clarify a couple of things:

      1) Free speech is a specific thing – it relates to government: one is free to criticize government without fear of retaliation or censorship; one is free from government censorship on speech regarding any topic.

      2) I believe one has the “right” to speak negatively against another private person; from this, I offer two thoughts:

      a. Just because one has this “right” doesn’t mean there is always good in using it, that using it is always a gain for freedom, and

      b. The target of the offensive speech might very well punch the speaker in the nose – with or without concern of the NAP

      3) Certainly while there is nothing in the NAP that makes me my brother’s keeper, your comment (if I understand you correctly) rightly points to what Hoppe has written extensively about and what I have written a bit about: culture matters if you want to maintain a free society.

    2. Well said. I have only very tentative thoughts on the relationship between culture and liberty. I tend to think of them as two sides of the same coin, where liberty (grounded in the NAP) only tells you how NOT to interact with other members of your society (you cannot aggress against their person or property). It is by definition negative. The open or "blank" space created by liberty is then free to being filled in by culture, which informs how we CAN or SHOULD interact with others on the basis of customs, norms, mores, etc. Thus, culture is by definition positive. And just as liberty affects the development of culture, so can culture affect the development (or preservation) of liberty.

      The question for me is, if liberty is negative in nature, then the goal of liberty cannot only be "more liberty." The goal must be a more moral society. In other words, we are not free simply to be free; rather, we are free to willingly (non-coercively) bear the burdens of our neighbor. That is, to be a decent person who genuinely cares about others. This is where I feel the anarchists fall short. They see the removal of the State as the ultimate goal, whereas I believe the true libertarian desires the removal of the State IN ORDER THAT we may have a more prosperous and virtuous society.

      I am humbly open to your thoughts (or links to previous posts) on this topic.

  2. Lets look at "free speech" in Europe, which is the subject of this post.

    You may blaspheme against Allah and the Prophet Mohammed legally, yet you may not cast any doubt on the Jewish Holocaust, which may as well be a religion since doubters are heretics punished with the full force of the law.

    This drives easily provoked Muslims in places like Belgium and France to madness due to the hypocrisy of it.

    Lets look at cuckservative leader Nigel Farage. He wants to prohibit Halal slaughter, but not Kosher slaughter which is EXACTLY the same thing. Asking why is forbidden because the answer is antisemitic.

    Charlie Hebdo magazine is the sanctioned martyr for "free speech". Yet Charlie Hebdo magazine had demanded many times that people be jailed for "crimes" that were entirely speech based. Charlie Hebdo magazine also demanded that the state dismantle the Front Nationale, and arrest its leaders. The Islamic terrorists did nothing to Charlie Hebdo that they had not previously demanded the state do to others. Victims they are not.

    Lets look at this rationally. The people of the west surrendered their right to "free speech" when they allowed people with different priorities to live among them. Free speech + diversity is impossible.

  3. Very interesting piece BM.

    On the subject of offending Muslims, this is easily solved by not letting them into your country. Even though the cartoons in question were deliberately provocative, and therefore irresponsible considering the consequences could have been predicted, Europe should be a "safe-space" for anti-Islamic speech. The whole situation is demonstrative of why Europeans and Muslims cannot peacefully coexist in the same Country.

    That being said, I would like to go into the weeds with you on the question of "free speech." You hit on a lot of the really important questions and much of what I will add is influenced by the work of Curt Doolittle (

    Contrary to Rothbard, Doolittle argues (and I agree with him) that the essential questions are the Truth content of speech and the criteria for evaluating that content. I will stick to the former since the later is complicated.

    Ultimately what we want is a situation where the cost of telling lies is higher than the cost of telling the truth. This is the foundation for a high-trust society and high-trust is one of the essential pre-conditions for the (libertarian) society we would like to live in.

    Permitting lies and protecting the liars from the consequences of their actions under some kind of NAP justification is counter-productive since it threatens the foundations of civil society by decreasing the level of trust.

    Socialism, Central Banking, the modern democratic state, and imperial warfare are all based on lies. Yes, some people are simply in error, but their errors have an origin in other people's lies. If we physically punish the liars most of our problems go away. Of course we need to be in a position to do that, which is the whole of our struggle.

    "Retaliation or censorship taken by a private individual for offensive speech might take a form that violates the speaker’s rights (like a punch in the nose)"

    If the speech is untrue and the speaker is met with physical punishment, then his rights have not been violated.

    When telling the Truth is outlawed, as is the case in Europe with regard to holocaustianity or criticism of the third world invasion, then you know you are being ruled by parasites.

    Look up Joshua Bonehill. He will be in prison for the next three years for offending Jews.

    "In a time of universal deceit - telling the truth is a revolutionary act."- George Orwell

  4. "A gold plated pacifier"

    "Sometimes one should expect a good punch in the nose for an offending comment – the punch perhaps a violation of the NAP, but useful in establishing societal boundaries of acceptable behavior."

    "whether or not the consequences are a violation of the NAP is irrelevant; a rude comment will deservedly receive a punch in the nose"

    I totally agree with you, yet I'm struggling with this. The violence is clearly in violation of the NAP, yet it seems justice may have been served, or at least someone was educated about the possibilities of poor behavior.

    This makes me think about the libertarian position on child rearing and spanking. It seems to be a clear violation of the NAP. It also seems to make for good education.

  5. Some people have thin skins, others have thick ones. Some people will go postal because you helpfully point out clashing colors in their attire. Others will simply smile when you rudely insult their religion, race and ethnicity. To a large extent such offenses are perceived subjectively.

    We may agree that offending the religious beliefs of others, though certainly allowable under the NAP, is not a good idea for maintaining social peace. But where do we draw the line? As is evident by the violence directed at participants at Trump rallies, many people take offense at ridicule and criticism of their political beliefs by Trump. It seems that political beliefs are held just as fervently as religious ones. So who is to say that to keep the social peace, religious beliefs should not be offended but political ones should be open to ridicule? What if large numbers of people get into the habit of rioting every time their political beliefs are challenged. Should a society's cultural consensus place political criticism off limits for the same reason that religious criticism should be taboo? Then what about criticism of people's tastes in cars, music, shoes, hairstyles and anything else that individuals are passionate about and would easily take offense at? Should a cultural consensus evolve which places limits on the discussion of all these things along with limits placed on the discussion of religion and politics?

    To avoid being offending in a hypothetical NAP society, most individuals would perhaps feel comfortable voluntarily maintaining contact only with those who share a very narrow set of beliefs, values, appearances and tastes. Since there would be no government pushing people together, we would probably see many cultural enclaves each proudly homogenous in its own way. Yet, one wonders how readily would new ideas, inventions, ways of doing things and generally creative destruction permeate through the confines of each enclave set in its own ways?

    There is no doubt that the growing centralization of political power is destructive to both liberty, culture and property. Yet is it possible that somewhere on this road to hell, there is a short stretch where great creative and inventive energies are released from the mere fact that people of many different backgrounds, beliefs, needs and values are thrown together and are forced to interact with each other? Yes, there are destructive stresses, conflicts and chaos which would be absent in peaceful, homogenous NAP enclaves, but creativity of all sorts may not take place in the absence of the pressures of stress and conflict which force some individuals to operate outside their zone of comfort to produce something new.

  6. Cartoons of the Prophet? Free speech!

    Holocaust revisionism? Thought crime!

    Deny the Resurrection of Christ? Hip and sophisticated derring-do!

    The declension encapsulates the typical Westerner's assessment of the belief systems impinging on his worldview. Do I overstate matters imputing the death of the West to it?

  7. BM, I fully agree that sometimes it's better not to utter something derogatory for fear of retribution.

    But, I wonder if a certain religion can be criticized at all, even if said criticism is muted and respectful. Do we self-censor out of fear? Who's to determine what's derogatory and what is pointedly accurate?

    If the adherents to this religion insist that any criticism is worthy of death, what then? Clearly, there has to be a line drawn somewhere. When are we free to push back, and say, "No, you may be offended, but your response is not proportionate"?

    I am not fully convinced, although most of these types of things I would not do myself, because that's not me.

    1. There is no solution to the problem that you describe except physical separation. If there is are religions that take offence to the words, actives, diet, or beliefs of non-believers then there is no way of living together.

      Earlier Robert Wenzel blamed Donald Trump for the massacre in Orlando, Florida. To Wenzel human beings are mere economic units, equally interchangeable, just as the communists viewed humanity. In this view Islamic State fighters could be brought to the US to mow lawns or flip burgers for the minimum wage and there would be no problems.

      What Wenzel (and I am using him as a proxy for other libertarians, too) is that there are people out there for which the sacred is a higher calling than counting money. They are willing to sacrifice their lives for the sacred, and are not willing to play along with what libertarians think that they should do.

  8. To all who have commented on this post, I am working through a reply that will be offered via a new post. As there are many thoughtful comments here, I have decided to take this approach.

    I will provide the link here once I have completed this - perhaps another couple of days.

    In the meantime, I thank each one of you - this is a complex and nuanced topic, and you all add something valuable to the discussion.

  9. BM,

    "For now, suffice it to say that to glorify him with an award for freedom of speech (that had nothing to do with freedom of speech) for cartoons that then resulted in “deadly chaos” seems to me at least somewhat distasteful."

    I have a take on this phenomena here:

    I contend that a faulty view of history allows all events to essentially be interpreted in favor of the status quo, or in favor of government intervention. This is somewhat similar to the Daily Bell's directed history.

  10. Here are my replies to several of the above comments: