February 2nd, 2010


Limits on freedom of speech: how much is too much?

"If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don't like. Stalin and Hitler, for example, were dictators in favor of freedom of speech for views they liked only. If you're in favor of freedom of speech, that means you're in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise."

-Noam Chomsky

Although Wikipedia defines "freedom of speech" as "the freedom to speak without censorship and/or limitation," in reality every country puts some limitations on freedom of speech. But what limits are appropriate? How many restrictions can free expression have and still be considered free? If you're drawing a line between countries that let you say pretty much anything and countries that let you only say what the leaders like to hear, where should that line be drawn?

In the United States, which I understand has some of the strongest protections of free speech in the world, it's illegal:
  • to threaten someone's physical safety1 or blackmail them.2
  • to intentionally incite "imminent lawless action" such as a riot.3
  • to publish instructions on how to build a WMD with the intention that it actually be used.4
  • to commit perjury, i.e., lie under oath in court or the equivalent.5
  • to produce, sell or possess child pornography.6
  • to broadcast pornography or obscenities on free-to-air TV or radio (punishable by fine only).7
  • (in some states) to maliciously defame someone's character with information you know to be false.8
Some other forms of speech, like copyright violation and libel & slander sit on the line between criminal offenses and actions that put you at risk of civil lawsuit, but are usually prosecuted in the latter category. Besides those things, you can pretty much say anything you want, including (contrary to popular opinion) shouting fire in a crowded theater,3 burning the US flag,9 calling for racial violence,3 and even advocating the violent overthrow of the US government10 as long as it's not in the form of "hey guys, let's go blow up the Capitol on Thursday."11

Here in Qatar, while the Constitution guarantees "freedom of expression ... according to the conditions and circumstances to be stipulated by the law," the limits to free speech are much more numerous. I don't know what they are, since I have no way to read the Qatari criminal code, except for the Press & Publication Law of 1979, which is bizarrely still in effect though largely unpoliced. For starters, though, it appears to be illegal:
  • to insult people, in public or private.12
  • to swear or make obscene gestures.13
  • to spread rumors, even if you believe they're true.14
  • to access websites deemed offensive to local religion, culture, or political interests (is this a criminal offense, or do they just try to prevent you from doing it?)15
  • to use the Internet to "disturb, irritate or offend."16
  • to blaspheme or insult a prophet of Islam.17
  • to deliver a khutbah (Muslim sermon) that hasn't been vetted by the government."18
  • (if you are not Muslim) to worship publicly, to proselytize, to import or distribute religious literature, or to possess materials that support or promote missionary activity.18
  • to hold a political protest or to form a political party.19
  • "to criticize the person of the Emir of the State of Qatar."20
  • to publish anything that might:
    • "provok[e] the overthrowing of the regime,"
    • harm government interests or the interests of its "friend countries,"
    • harm the currency or economy,
    • incite the committing of crimes,
    • "diffus[e] rancor,"
    • damage anyone's reputation or wealth,
    • or "challenge ... the work of a public official" unless for "protection of the public interest."20
  • to publish "any matter in contradiction to ethics."20
  • to publish, without prior approval, any information about the military, international agreements, criminal investigations, or banking news (!), quotes from the emir, or anything the Minister of Information [an office which no longer exists] tells you not to.20

For me, the line between "free" and "not free" is somewhere between the US and Qatar. For many of our students, the line between "free" and "not free" is somewhere between Qatar and, say, Burma. I think they would probably say (but would like to hear from them in comments!) that it's best to have a country where you can voice your opinion and be critical, but not be insulting to others. I think, on the other hand, that it's dangerous to let the government decide what it thinks is insulting.

So how do you decide how many restrictions are too many? Which of the above restrictions seem like justifiable protections of public well-being, and which seem like they stifle basic human freedoms?

This is not a rhetorical question. :-)

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