The freedom of speech has received a lot of press lately. Between people stomping on American flags and religious bigots painting the entirety of Islam in bad colors a lot of people have been either defending freedom of speech or condemning it. What’s especially interesting to me though are the people who are labeling anybody who criticizes acts of free speech as opponents of free speech. It seems that many people have forgotten that the freedom of speech doesn’t imply freedom from criticism.
Case in point, Pamela Geller. Neocons and other bigots are holding her up as a paragon of free speech for her Islamophobic tirades. Anybody who calls Geller an asshole is accused of infringing on her freedom of speech. I think Geller is an asshole because she is blaming an entire religion for the actions of a few. With that said, I also believe she has every right to say what she’s saying. Why? Because I believe everybody has the right to say what they wish. But part of that right is that I am free to criticize anybody I disagree with for what they say.
Freedom of speech is a two-way street. If you are free to say something I disagree with then I am free to say that I disagree with you. Doing so doesn’t mean I’m infringing on your freedom of speech. Infringement would only occur if I used force to silence you. If somebody says, “All Muslims are evil.” and I respond by saying, “You’re an ignorant asshole.” I haven’t infringed the first person’s freedom of speech. However, if I were to pull a gun on the first person and say, “Shut your mouth or I’ll kill you!” then I have infringed on their freedom of speech.
What about flag stomping or burning? Is that an exercise of free speech? That depends entirely on whether or not the person who owns the flag is doing or has authorized such actions. Somebody purchasing a flag for the sole purpose of stomping or burning it is exercising their right as a property owner. When something belongs to me I have every right to do with it as I please. If somebody steals another person’s flag to stomp or burn then they are thieves. In my opinion free speech isn’t the important question in regards to flag desecration, ownership is. Threatening somebody who is stomping or burning their own flag is an infringement of property rights. You have every right to disagree with their choice in how they use their property but you have no right to use force to stop them unless their use is an initiation of force.
The line between criticism and infringement isn’t a fine one that is easily missed. So long as force isn’t on the table no infringement exists. This is true of free speech and property rights.