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Should the government regulate hateful Billboards? I once saw a billboard that said the pope is the anti-Christ. I shrugged it off as a matter of free speech. But then someone pointed out that someone could advertise a billboard that expressed hatred for blacks. For whatever reason this has never happened. Most billboard owners dont want to accused of racism. So arguably society polices itself well enough without government intervention. Yet I suspect that there is another factor which is that billboards are owned by a very small amount of people because the high expense involved and the limited number of billboards. These folks don't want any bad attention. The same observation could be made about all aspects of the media. It is very difficult to get controversial or even outright racist materials despite the fact that many people are racist. (I suppose The Bell Curve is a notable exception) It seems like one "benefit" of concentrated wealth is that it promulgates political correctness to protect its own interests. On the other hand wouldn't a better solution to the problem of hateful speech would be to regulate some cases such as billboards while at the same time democratizing the media so that more people can publish, advertise or otherwise express their political views?

May 9, 2013

Response from Ian Kidd on May 10, 2013
Much depends on how one construes freedom of speech. Often one finds it defined very poorly as being the right to say (or display) whatever one likes - whether it is offensive, ill-informed, false, and so on - an "anything goes" attitude towards speech: you're free to say (or display) whatever you like!

But that definition is indeed a poor one, and one way to show why is to ask why we value freedom of speech. A good argument to value freedom of speech is so that we can hear the considered and articulate views and arguments of others and then assess them - views worth hearing, worth taking seriously, worth changing one's life in response to - and one could then ask whether the content of those hateful billboards fulfil those criteria.

My two cents.

[I am happy to accept Eric's criticism - and am happy to be corrected! IJK]
Response from Eric Silverman on May 11, 2013
This is a good question to raise. Unfortunately, Ian Kidd has implicitly offered us a false dilemma on the matter by suggesting that 'free speech' means either "anything goes" OR "we can limit free speech to those views [we judge to be] worth hearing/worth taking seriously."

There are many possible positions in between this false dichotomy. I myself am fairly comfortable with the USA Supreme Court's current view which is roughly that "speech that is not dangerous in an immediate physical way is broadly protected." Examples of unprotected speech include things like shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater, incitement to immediate riotous violence, joking about 'bombs' at the airport, and things of this nature. Slander and libel are also unprotected under civil rather than criminal law (you can't say things that are damaging to people that you know to be untrue if you don't want them to sue you).

The problem with the standard suggested by Kidd: that we censor views we don't think are 'worth hearing, taking seriously, worth changing one's life in response to' is that the answers to those questions are subjective and 'in the eye of the beholder.' You and I may not think the 'anti-pope' message is worthwhile, but to someone who fears the influence of Catholicism it may be a vital message (after all, they were willing to pay enough money to buy a billboard for it). A Christian might think the 'pro-atheist' billboards mocking Christmas are 'hate speech' but the jaded agnostic would not think so. Democrats may believe that any criticism of President Obama are not 'worth considering', but Republicans would not think so (and vice versa when discussing President Bush).

Furthermore, it risks enthroning current cultural values and shutting off the possibility of future moral/political progress. Would segregation have ended if those sympathetic to it were given the right to judge which views were entitled to free speech? Would women have the right to vote if those who were offended by the idea of suffrage had the right to censor the women's suffrage movement?

Finally, censoring opinions we find 'unworthy' does nothing to disprove these ideas. It is an act of power, not an act of reason. If we censor anti-pope billboards we risk adding to the paranoia behind these ideas.

I suggest that we worry less about which ideas we judge to be 'worth hearing' and more about providing evidence and reasons against bad ideas. Of all people, philosophers should favor winning debates through reason rather than through censorship. For more on the topic of free speech, I recommend reading J. S. Mill's On Liberty.


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