“Provocation” IS Freedom of Speech

by | May 5, 2015 | Free Speech

The next time someone tells you, “Freedom of speech does not warrant provocation,” then ask them what they plan to do when someone feels provoked by something they say.


In the aftermath of the Garland, Texas, shootings at The Muhammad Art Exhibit & Contest, Pamela Geller, contest organizer and president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, an anti-Islamic organization, was interviewed by CNN.

In the interview, Geller’s opponent repeatedly said that there’s a “fine line” between freedom of speech and “provocation.”

Now think about this for a minute. “Free speech is one thing; provocation is another.”

The implication is obvious. Free speech is valid — but only to a point.

It is true that even absolutes — and freedom of speech had better be an absolute — exist within a certain context.


For example, you cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theater. The reason you cannot do so is that you don’t own the theater. By yelling “fire,” you falsely create chaos in a way that annoys or troubles the theater owner’s customers; for that reason, the theater owner would have a valid legal case against you. You also violate the private property rights of the owners, who paid good money for the movie, play or performance, and then had to abort or interrupt their enjoyment of that product because of your choice to deliberately disrupt the performance. It’s no different than stealing.

You could not defend yourself by saying, “It’s my right to free speech.” This is because freedom of speech, while an absolute, exists within an objectively defined context. That context means that you may express whatever ideas you wish, so long as you do not violate the property rights (or other individual rights, such as the right to life) of another by doing so. You must express your views on your own dollar, and with the full consent of everyone involved. You cannot walk up to people on the street and violate their property or other individual rights by imposing your views on them. You must have their consent. Your right to free speech does not trump or obliterate another’s right to property, or simply to be left alone.

All of these examples illustrate how even an absolute principle, like freedom of speech, exists in a context. You cannot rip that principle out of its proper context and then claim it.

Geller’s opponent in the interview seemed to be accusing Geller of ripping the principle of free speech out of context. But she did not prove, nor even attempt to explain, how this is the case. All she’s saying is, “There’s a fine line between provocation and free speech.” That’s supposed to intellectually disarm Geller; it didn’t, and it should not.

By making this statement, a person is suggesting that free speech has its limits — and “provocation” is one of those limits.

The person making such a claim, or implying it, should be forced to defend it.

If you agree that freedom of speech may be limited by “provocation,” then the onus is on you to defend why and how. In other words, what are the objective definitions and standards by which we are to judge “provocation?” Who is to have the final say on those standards, since it’s to be a legal matter?

Will there be a “Human Rights Commission,” as in Canada, to determine what constitutes “hate” or provocation — under the law — and what does not? Who will comprise this commission? What will be the limits of its powers?

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is quite clear:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

How is any legal body — whether it’s a “human rights commission” or anything else, such as a judge, a jury, or a President or Governor issuing an order — to justify itself in light of the Constitutional prohibition against restraining free speech?

By what moral right does the government of a free country limit free speech, in the name of a vaguely defined “fine line” that can only mean its restriction?

“Well, I don’t know where that fine line exists. But drawing cartoons offensive to Muslims is definitely over that line.” Interestingly, the same people who claim this do not claim the equivalent for Christians or other groups. Why does Islam get this protection and not other groups? Why should any group have this protection?

If the CNN interviewer merely wishes that Geller and her associates had used more caution, and not held the conference, for their own personal safety, then she should have said so. She made the issue one of free speech by bringing it up, in this way. People who smugly make these claims should be forced to defend them; they rarely are, and almost always refuse to do so, even when challenged.

Geller was correct to call the interviewer patronizing. Such people pose as “moderate” and therefore “reasonable.” It’s a widespread and vicious fallacy. “Well, freedom of speech is all well and good — but you can’t go around provoking people.”

Why not? In fact, the purpose of this conference — as I understand it, at least — was not to provoke. It was to make a point. It was to celebrate and illustrate the importance of free speech. Remember that the whole issue began because of earlier, deadly attacks in Europe, on cartoonists critical of Islam. Geller called such people “savage” because that’s what they are. You can’t hide behind false moderation and pseudo-reasonableness as this interviewer did; when you do, you only give aid and comfort to the people who are, in fact, savages.

Just as posing with pseudo-reasonableness is not a rational argument, neither is guilt. “Have you ever known a Muslim?” the interviewer asked at the start. What does that have to do with anything? Just three days ago, I wrote in this very column:

It’s an easily observable fact that many people can be reasonable in one context, and unreasonable in another. This is particularly true when it comes to religion. Why is talking to a Muslim, or even a thousand Muslims, and finding each to be reasonable in one context supposed to prove reasonable mindsets in all others?

The issue here is that people cannot hold public events critical of Islam without being attacked by some ISIS-inspired or equivalent group. We don’t have that problem with any other type of group, organization — religious or non-religious — anywhere else in the remotely civilized world today. It’s only with Islam, and it’s almost always Islam.

Islam is the provocative ideology here — not Jefferson’s and Madison’s concept of free speech. It’s time to stop putting the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution on the defensive so that thin-skinned Muslims can go through life without ever being offended — something that may, in fact, be impossible to pull off.

There has to be something deeply wrong with the ideology of Islam, whether all Muslims are afflicted to the same extent. Remember, they are the ones making this political, by flying planes into buildings and morally condemning infidels to explosive deaths throughout the world on a daily basis. Groups like Geller’s are merely trying to defend themselves, and to make the point that we all should want to do so … for our own sakes, most of all.

The next time someone tells you, “Freedom of speech does not warrant provocation,” then ask them what they plan to do when someone feels provoked by something they say.

Censorship, like free speech, works all the way around — or not at all. Provocation is free speech.

Dr. Michael Hurd is a psychotherapist, columnist and author of "Bad Therapy, Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference)" and "Grow Up America!" Visit his website at: www.DrHurd.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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