Self Censorship

One by-product of the Paris terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo was an outpouring of support for freedom of speech.  While there was general agreement that the magazine’s content has been, beyond a doubt, offensive to some (and not only Muslims), almost everyone agreed that freedom of speech is a fundamental right that should be protected, regardless of who is offended by the speech.

While nobody has proposed limiting freedom of speech, some commentators feared that the attack might result in self-censorship.  People would be afraid to speak out if they thought they would be targeted for what they said.

The targeting of people who say offensive things does not have to be as extreme as killing them.  In the United States, we target and penalize people for saying things that offend others all the time.  That is the essence of political correctness.  The penalizing of Americans for political incorrectness is based on the same principle as the French terrorist killings, except that the penalties are not so extreme.  Here are two recent examples from my local area.

The first is an example of a business professor at Florida State University (where I teach) who resigned under pressure after making comments on Facebook that were deemed to be offensive.  The linked article even begins by telling readers they may be offended by the comments.

She refers to “Northern fagoot (sic) elitism” and says, “Obama has single-handedly turned our once great society into a Ghetto Culture, rivaling that of Europe. France is almost at war because of his filthy rodent Muslims who are attacking Native Frenchmen and women.”  (Interesting that her comment about Muslims attacking the French was made before the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo.)

Is this free speech that should be protected the same as the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, or is it offensive and politically incorrect, so the speaker should be pressured to resign from her university faculty job?

In the county just south of mine, two sheriff’s deputies were suspended without pay in November, for comments they made following the rioting and looting in the aftermath of the Ferguson grand jury decision.  Again on Facebook, one said “Damn cockroaches! Squashem all!!!!! I say we rally for Wilson, who’s with me?”  And foreshadowing the Charlie Hebdo attack, another posted three nationally syndicated cartoons in the same thread.  We celebrate Charlie Hebdo‘s publication of cartoons, but sanction a sheriff’s deputy who posts nationally syndicated cartoons on Facebook.

These are recent cases in my local area where people have been penalized for speaking their minds.  I’ve told you what they said and did.  So, following the Charlie Hebdo attack, when some are concerned that it may lead to self-censorship because people will be afraid to say what they are thinking, how do these examples fit in?

It would appear that if you are a college teacher (at least, at Florida State University), or a law enforcement officer, (at least, with the Wakulla County, Florida sheriff’s department), recent events should tell you that you will be penalized if you speak what’s on your mind rather than self-censor.  Indeed, self-censorship is the whole point of political correctness.  We celebrate freedom of speech, except when we are offended by what we hear.

The two examples I gave above obviously differ with Charlie Hebdo in the degree to which the people involved were penalized for their exercise of their free speech rights.  But do they differ in principle?  One big difference is that the Charlie Hebdo terrorists acted as individuals against those who offended them, whereas in the two examples I gave, the individuals were penalized by the state.

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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