Freedom of speech does not confer the right to make threats

January 24, 2020 • 11:30 am

I swear, some people still can’t get the principles of the First Amendment through their skulls. One of these is the blogger P. Z. Myers, who just wrote a short post on Pharyngula implying that a neo-Nazi accused of making a vile threat across state lines was, according to First Amendment principles, merely exercising his freedom of speech.  As Myers said of the threat:

“[Cantwell’s arrest] is rather interesting from a free speech point of view. They’re just words, right? First amendment! Free speech! Mere words can’t hurt people.”

Myers adds at the end of his post, a screenshot of which I reproduce below (it’s also archived via the Wayback Machine), another implication that “free speech absolutists” would have no problem with Cantwell’s threats:

“It seems that words have power after all, and that ‘free speech’ isn’t carte blanche to say whatever you want after all. Now if only the absolutists could figure that out.”

What Myers is doing here is making up a definition of free speech that nobody holds, and doing that to mock advocates of free speech. I suspect he’s doing this because Myers doesn’t like the way free speech is really construed by courts and “absolutists”—a broad principle that has limitations, but also allows what many people see as “hate speech.”

First of all, words do have power. If they didn’t, Dr. King and other leaders of the civil rights movement wouldn’t have prompted a generation of African-American people to rise up against oppression and change the segregation laws. It’s how politicians get power and how movements spread. So that’s not an issue. Nor is there controversy about whether words can hurt people—or at least their feelings. Think of all the segregationists who were offended and hurt at the words of Dr. King, which threatened their culture and way of life. Right now many people claim to be hurt (or even subject to “violence”) by others who say that trans women differ in relevant ways from biological women.

But who on Earth thinks that “free speech is carte blanche to say whatever you want”? I am a free-speech absolutist, but not in the sense of thinking that anything goes when it comes to speech. In fact, I don’t know any free speech absolutist who thinks that way. Over the years, the courts have carved out reasonable exceptions to the First Amendment, and those including banning speech intended to and likely to cause immediate violence, speech that constitutes harassment of an individual or creates a harassing climate in the workplace, prohibition of false advertising and of child pornography, speech involved in libel or defamation, and, of course, personal threats. (You’re really in trouble if you threaten government officials like the President.) There is in fact an entire Wikipedia article about these exceptions, “United States free speech exceptions.” And if you cross some of those boundaries, you can be, fined, arrested, or jailed

These exceptions are reasonable, and when I endorse the First Amendment’s speech provision I am doing so while recognizing that there are caveats—that the right to say what you want is not absolute. And every other free-speech absolutist, as far as I know, is on board with me. I know of none, for example, who endorse grossly false advertising, child pornography, sexual harassment, and so on.

Now look at what Cantwell said! His message—to rape the recipient’s wife in front of his kids—is a clear threat, and he’s made related threats before. A while back I got a similar threat involving sexual violence, and reported it to the FBI. Their agents had a little chat with the perp after they tracked him down, and his threat hasn’t been repeated. I would have no hesitation in asserting that the miscreant had no right to say what he did to me and get away with it.

I find it hard to accept that Myers really believes what he says about free-speech advocates. Rather, it’s pretty clear that he’s attacking a nonsensical definition of free speech, one that nobody holds, in order to discredit the legal notion of free speech as outlined in the Bill of Rights and interpreted by the courts. [As a reader pointed out below, Myers is “strawmanning” with such a definition.]

But why would he do that? Well, my best guess is that he’s not a fan of First Amendment speech, either, and would ban speakers or speech that offends (“hurts”) those adhering to his own ideology. But that’s just a guess.

33 thoughts on “Freedom of speech does not confer the right to make threats

      1. I admit I drop by his miserable blog once in a great while to see what ridiculousness if going on over there. The discourse is usually depressingly childish.

  1. There are also those that think that saying things that are offensive means you go to jail for it. People are actually allowed to be racists, sexists assholes. They can’t threaten you but they can offend you.

  2. Your surprised at the nonsense and drivel that P.P. Liars writes? Why? He’s been spewing nonsense on a daily basis for YEARS.

  3. Dear Prof Coyne.

    I did not read Myers as endorsing what Cantwell says. I think you and he, at least in this instance, are on the same side.


    1. No he is not. PZ is saying “look at this awful person and the things he has said. Maybe free speech is not such a good idea.”

      He’s trying to make a false equivalence between Chris Cantwell and people who say things he doesn’t like. There’s a world of difference between “I’m gonna rape your wife” and “trans women aren’t real women” whether you agree with the latter or not, but PZ would rather you saw them as the same.

  4. I find it hard to accept that Myers really believes what he says about free-speech advocates. Rather, it’s pretty clear that he’s promoting a nonsensical version of free speech, one that nobody holds, to discredit the notion of free speech as outlined in the Bill of Rights and interpreted by the courts.

    I would argue with the word “promoting”. To me that would mean he advocates the position of “anything goes”. He doesn’t advocate it: he claims people like you advocate it. I guess that means he has constructed a straw man.

    The reason he does it is because he wants to draw a false equivalence between threatening actual people and making offensive comments about generalised groups of people.

    Also, he doesn’t want to ban certain types of speech, he wants to ban speakers who have uttered the speech he doesn’t like in the past, no matter what they have got to say now. An example would be Germaine Greer who once said something controversial about trans women and who now risks being deplatformed at certain venues no matter what she is there to talk about.

  5. US free speech laws strike me as near-optimal, and is something that even the most radical leftist ought to be an arch-conservative about (that is, in the sense of not favoring policy change).

    Another troubling current is the leftist argument that defense of free speech is tenable mainly for pragmatic reasons, since curtailment of free speech can be used against the radical left by the state. Of course, the opportunism of that kind of view reeks to high heaven, since the implication is that once socialists come to power… all bets are off. I much prefer to defend free speech as inherently good and unobjectionable.

  6. I feel so sad when I think of PZ sometimes. Way back in the early days of “The Four Horsemen,” I really thought he was going to be horseman number 5 or 6 (or 7), and it’s been disheartening to see how irrational he’s revealed himself to be.

    On free speech, as usual, I agree here with PCC(E), as a “free-speech absolutist”. Our courts have done some quite dubious things throughout our history, but with respect to the First Amendment Freedom of Speech, I think they’ve done a remarkably even-handed and rational job over the last few hundred years. The exceptions are, in general, quite clear, specific, and logical. I think even J. S. Mill would probably agree with them.

    1. “… with respect to the First Amendment Freedom of Speech, I think they’ve done a remarkably even-handed and rational job over the last few hundred years.”

      I think the timeframe is an order of magnitude too generous. It is only in the last few decades that the US established itself as exemplary on free speech, via court rulings (e.g. the KKK-related cases in the 60s and 70s.)

  7. Surely most threats against presidents go unchecked? When Obama was in office, the number of threats I heard against his life numbered in the dozens and those were just people I heard with my own ears.

    Freedom of speech has an uncomfortable relation with signal to noise. Almost any attempt to profile a credible threat is, for all practical purposes, nearly impossible.

    Before someone can issue a claim that an assassination attempt can predicted then they will need to predict where my cat will be within a meter next Thursday.

    What hate speech does best is allow us to identify who might be a problem. Most people who are filled with hate can be helped by the rest of us. A single school shooting can be prevented by just being there for someone. But if they bottle away all their hatred it’s even more difficult to know what the problem is.

    I endorse anyone to say whatever they want. It’s only then that we can start a dialogue and have a chance to remove hate.

    1. Surely you don’t think that someone could create a climate of harassment in a workplace, do you? Or promulgate child pornography? Or call someone up several times a day and say that they’re going to kill them? Do you think drug companies can make false claims about their products? That you can defame or libel someone publicly and get away with it?

      1. The United States free speech exceptions on Wikipedia are very well vetted. The FBI, for example, has done reasonable work to identify what should be illegal.

        I meant to say that if a person wants to open a personal social media channel that illustrates they have hatred on their mind then it is to society’s advantage that we know something about who and why they would feel that way.

        Libel, harassment, child-pornography are all very bad for society and should be stopped.

    2. Surely most threats against presidents go unchecked?

      …Freedom of speech has an uncomfortable relation with signal to noise.

      I used to evaluate ‘suspicious chemical activity’ call-ins for a government agency; most of the time it wasn’t super hard to tell the idiots from the scary folk.

      My guess is the Secret Service has a pretty good empirical database of past threats and a derived set of indicators that is decent at distinguishing “blowing off steam” from “getting his rifle and coming to Washington.” I’m not claiming they’re always correct either way, but I’d bet they have a wealth of past data, trend analysis, and other experience on which to base their evaluations.

      Of course, that doesn’t help the rest of us figure out when someone in our own local community is blowing off steam vs. credible threat. That’s why reporting anything that really seems credible to the FBI is IMO a well justified response.

  8. I can fully agree with our host here ,and Mr Meyers aspersions are false.
    The problem is to distinguish between an ’empty’ or general threat, and a real or ‘imminent’ threat.
    The example Mr Meyers gives is very different form a vague threat in social media that says “all you libturds should be destroyed”. I think most of us can agree to that. Not to mention ‘trans-women are not really women’.

    But what eg. about a demonstrating Muslim brandishing a placard “Death to those who mock Islam!”? We know these threats are not empty (Theo van Gogh, Charlie Hebdo, etc. etc.). I’d say that in those cases the limits of free speech are breached, and these demonstrators should be prosecuted for inciting violence.
    And what about, say, Radio Mille Collines? Systematically describing a certain group as vermin (ic. cockroaches), that needs to be exterminated? It was instrumental on the murder of 800,000 people.
    There is no easy answer.

  9. … words do have power.

    Therein lies the antinomy we free-speech near-absolutists embrace. We are, on the one hand, language lovers, by and large, believers in the power of words to move people profoundly, including to move them to action.

    On the other hand, we have come to recognize that, except in the most dire and closely circumscribed circumstances, the only way to police speech — the only way to sort the good from the bad, the true from the false, the benign from the malignant — is to allow all ideas to compete in the intellectual marketplace, to act as though, unlike sticks an stones, words can never hurt me.

  10. Shit how far down the toilet Myers has gone. I mean, his claim to fame was crucifying a cracker because religious zealots were making death threats over someone else taking one from a church to show their friends.

    Now he can’t seem to see the difference between his action – which was offensive to Catholics – and the Catholics who were making those threats.


  11. There is a problem with the term ‘free speech absolutism’, and you identify it when you call yourself an absolutist, but then have to point out that you’re not actually saying ‘anything goes’.

    But that’s what absolutism means. And it’s only by qualifying your views that you make it clear that your absolutism isn’t actually absolute.

    So I’m not sure ‘free speech absolutism’ is a particularly helpful descriptor if your views on this are not absolute.

    Leave the phrase to describe the people who really are serious about their absolutism and who genuinely say ‘anything goes’. Because they do exist, and I’ve spoken to them – they’re mainly libertarians…or alt-right trolls, ‘race-realists’, holocaust-denialists, etc. And it’s clear that when you push them on the reductio ad absurdum of their absolutism…eg. someone screaming pornographic abuse through their letterbox for 24 hours a day…they haven’t really thought the implications through. But they do exist.
    I mean…there are people in this very comment section who claim that ‘anything goes’, so it’s evidently not true that genuine absolutists don’t exist.

    I think Myers is a pretty unpleasant chap, and I disagree with him on almost everything, but he’s not attacking a strawman here.

  12. We have the same problem with the first and the second amendments. Both are absolute in their language. Most people understand and accept restrictions on free speech. More people say they object to any restrictions on arms, although there are clearly restriction in place. Always seems to be a fight for reasonable thought and reasonable laws, against unreasonable people.

  13. A caveat regarding “personal threats”: consistent with the First Amendment standard set out in Brandenburg v. Ohio, threats of violence can generally be prosecuted criminally as an “assault” only where the threat is coupled with an apparent ability to carry out the threat such as to create a well-founded fear in a reasonable person that the threatened violence is imminent.

  14. On a monday, PZ Myers blogs that he wants “hate speech” laws, to ban views that aren’t sufficiently woke. On tuesday he writes that those who disagree are “freeze peach absolutists”. On wednesday, he finds a neo-nazi who threatens life and limb of someone, and associates the nazi with those “freeze peach absolutists” he reported about a day before. He’s saying that if you don’t like particulars of his woke ideology, that you are just like a nazi who threatens with violence. Of course, threats are illegal, even in broader terms, see Virginia v. Black.

    On thursday, PZ Myers submits a very narrow view on “feminism”. It so narrow that few feminists would make it into his “intersectional” club — which is some pseudo-academic mumbo jumbo that bears little resemblance to actual intersectionality but sounds appealing to the pseudo-left tumblr identitarians in his comment section.

    On friday, he found people who had some disagreement with that narrow idea of (intersectional) feminism. He then, switching again, asserts they are “anti-feminists” or “misogynists” because feminism actually now means “equal rights for women” or some similar broad definition, and not the narrow one. He’s implying that his narrow idea of feminism is the only version that wants equality for women.

    On saturday, he calls people on an obscure forum X. On sunday, he redefines X to now include a particulary vile person on Twitter. The next week, the people of the forum are exactly like that vile person on twitter. For PZ Myers, words and concepts can be highly elastic. He makes it up as he goes along.

    Oddly enough, he can be very elastic with free speech when it suits him, and where he feels he has liberty to make extreme accusations (see his situation versus Atheists Ireland, and Michael Nugent) again with the same self-serving bending and stretching of meaning.

    I once tried to educate myself what Americans, PZ Myers and his merry commentariat mean by “intersectionality” (PZ identified himself as an intersectional atheist), “social justice” or “the left”. It’s a bit comical how zealous they were about stuff that obviously had a very different and particular meaning to them, and for which even Wikipedia was not prepared to explain (I did check article creation dates). I read up on Critical Race Theory and Crenshaw’s intersectionality back then and found it hardly resembles woke ideology. It wasn’t fathomable to me how it can be “left wing” to want employer surveillance of social media to keep employees in check. How it is “left wing” to favour something like a comics code and the equivalent of “concerned” conservatives writing angry letters to editors? I could go on forever.

    That is in the end why everyone expects too much of PZ Myers, and the wokerati in general. What he writes has no rhyme or reason. He can whine about social media hate one day, and unleash doxing and workplace harassment against a woman the next. Most people have ideas I would gladly discuss, but PZ Myers simply has none.

    1. “It wasn’t fathomable to me how it can be “left wing” to want employer surveillance of social media to keep employees in check.”

      The far-left always has been controlling and authoritarian. It’s a necessary aspect of moulding society into the shape they want it, rather than allowing individual liberty. Read George Orwell!

      But yes, your analysis of PZ is spot-on.

      1. This explanation is common “folk politics” but I don‘t find it useful. It seens that people are deemed “far” when their authoritarianism ramps up, even if their views are not (that) extreme. I would consider Richard Lewontin more left than Myers and probably wouldn’t consider him “far left” (and he’s a Marxist), either. Christopher Hitchens identified as a Marxist for almost his whole life, and said he “was” a Marxist only few years before his death.

        I prefer to use “far” not as an indicator how far away they are from my views, but as a more objective description for people who want to radically change society, and who aren’t content with reforms. The typical Far Left Wing are tankies who like Soviet and Maoist style communism, or anarchists who want to radically change how society is organized.

        I haven’t kept up with what Myers believes these days, but back then he was a bog-standard secular Democrat, with mostly unremarkable views. He’s simply an angry authoritarian with mainstream woke views he can’t explain, because it’s just tribal identity and he needs to react to what he sees (I also suspect that the woke creed is unexplainable because once on paper, someone can find anything problematic, so everything is kept vague and in reaction to transgressions). He’s the equivalent of a YouTube reaction video, where he makes grimaces in words to entertain his audience, and who can hate someone for two minutes. To each their own, I guess.

  15. With the rise of people who think that it is their duty to be offended on behalf others, you situations like this one being covered by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

    The irony in this case is that it’s not the University of Connecticut’s first run at this, back in the late 80s they passed a ruling to protect PoC (Asian subRace) from racial harassment. The first person to be subjected to its provisions was a PoC (Asian subRace) who had been reported by two PoNC (White subRace) who took offense at a hand written note stating that ‘Bimbos’ would be shot on sight (The student didn’t get into trouble for that, they also allegedly had included ‘Homos’ in the ‘shot on sight’ category).

    It resulted in a court case and a 1990 court order (Which the University of Connecticut managed to loose…) forbidding them from “any . . . policy that interferes with the exercise of First Amendment rights by . . . any … student, when the exercise of such rights is unaccompanied by violence or the imminent threat of violence.”

Leave a Reply